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Drug Users Stigma: An Insidious Evil

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” These are the ideals put forth by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this Declaration, the protection of human rights applies to allhuman beings, all.

Fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters have, for decades, been denied these basic rights. Extremely punitive drug policies, mass incarcerations, denial of essential medicines and basic healthcare have stripped problematic drug users, ordinary caught in the vicious cycle of addiction, of their basic rights. Among these basic rights stands the human right to health. It encompasses the right to access to all medical services, sanitation, adequate food, decent housing, healthy working conditions, and a clean environment. Among all the causes of human rights violation against drug users, stigmatization appears as one of the most insidious problem.

· “The most difficult barriers on the path of recovery is rejection. That’s what push us into a deeper place”.

· “People attribute drug addiction to a spiritual curse and believe that only a spiritual intervention can serve as remedy”.

· “Family and friends keep rejecting me because of my drug addiction. The only place where i feel accepted and at home is in the ghettos with other drug users.”

These are excerpts from Problematic drug users’ interventions during series of Dialogues on Drug Policy Reform in Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire organized by the West Africa Drug Policy Network with support of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the West Africa Civil Society Institute.

According to the California Mental Health Services Authority, stigma can be defined as attitudes and beliefs that lead people to reject, avoid, or fear those they perceive as being different.  The National Catholic Partnership on Disability identified four components of stigma:

– Labeling someone with a condition;

– Stereotyping people who have that condition;

– Creating a division— a superior “us” group and a devalued “them” group, resulting in loss of status in the community;

– Discriminating against someone based on their label.

Studies reveal that stigma has a harmful effect on psychological well-being of drug users[1]. Stigma constitutes a barricade to opportunities for people using illicit drugs. This can lead to a complete rejection by society, discrimination or labeling of drug users.

In Africa in general and in West Africa particularly, some cultural and religious beliefs tend to reinforce the stigma of drug users. In Ghana for example, cannabis, is translated in indigenous language Twi by “obonsam tawa”, which means ‘devil’s tobacco’. Consequently, culturally, drug users in Ghana are identified as users of a “devilish” item. A study conducted in South Africa also reveals that people are more likely to offer help to alcohol users, but more likely to suggest aggressive measures for drug users[2]. This shows that morality and ethics are heavily involved in how drug users are perceived.

The stigmatization of drug use is also nurtured by the nature punitive of drug policies and the intense propaganda against drug use. Over the decades, society has criminalized drug consumption and by this labelled it as immoral as murder or rape. In most countries, drug users are criminals in the eyes of the law. In Ghana for example, illicit drug possession is punishable by a minimum of 10 years of imprisonment.

Sadly, addiction to drugs is not due to a lack of moral principles. Addiction is a disease just like diabetes or cancer. Addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental and biological factors. The US National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse defines addiction as a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgment and memory[3].

Regrettably, the blame associated with drug use stops many people from seeking help and treatment. Likewise, the stronger the stigma on drug users is, the harder it is to achieve successful recovery from addiction.  The perception of society on drug users is worsening their situation and giving room for all kind of violations of drug users’ rights. Stigma toward drug users must stop.

To effectively fight the stigma on drug users, there is a need to:

· Distinguish facts and myths: Provide more evidence based research on the mechanisms behind drug use and addiction. Throw more light on trigger factors which may conduce someone to use drugs. And most importantly prove that, problematic drug users need help not punishment.

· Sensitize and educate: Create opportunities to share findings on research on drugs abuse. Educate the public on the harm of drugs. Use the available information to challenge the stereotypes and myths. It may involve the use of cultural and religious leaders as campaigners to reach more people. Promote the use of more appropriate language to describe drug addiction. In this regard, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy published a glossary of more appropriate language to address addiction-related terms.

Stigmatizing Language

Preferred Language


Person with a substance use disorder


Substance use disorder

Drug abuser

Person who uses drugs

Drug habit

Regular substance use

Recreational or casual user

Person who uses drugs for nonmedical reasons

Experimental user

Person who is new to drug use

Source: U.S. Office of National Drug Policy

· Advocate for sensible drug policies: Drug use must be dealt as a public health issue. Policies grounded on the heavily punitive approach must be reformed. A humane approach steeped protecting the rights of problematic drug user must be the foundation of new policies.

Well-planned series of interventions presenting persons with substance abuse disorder in a positive light combined with effective communication on facts of their condition   can contribute to ending this stigma. Policies grounded in human rights will then provide the legal framework to treat problematic drug users as they should be: human beings who need help.

By Chamrid Kpadonou (@ChamridK) , Coordinator of the Drug Policy Reform Project at the West Africa Civil Society Institute and 2017 Fellow of the West Africa Executive Course on Human Rights and Drug Policy.

[2] Negative attributions towards people with substance use disorders in South Africa: Variation across substances and by gender, Katherine Sorsdahl,



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