Drug related stigma and the language we use

For people who use drugs or have in the past, stigma is a barrier to a wide range of opportunities and rights. This is especially true for individuals from marginalized communities, as they have been historically the target of militant drug policies that focused on arrest rather than rehabilitation. The language that is used when discussing drug usage has the potential to further perpetuate the false notion that those that use drugs are inherently “bad people.” Mainstream media has played a role in creating a story that some drug users deserve more sympathy than others because of socioeconomic class and race. Below are some resources and further explanations as to how stigma has shaped drug usage and accessibility to safe supplies and rights.

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Anti-stigma glossary

In collaboration with the Peer Network of New York, Drug Policy Alliance has produced an invaluable glossary explaining how we are working to reduce stigma through language.

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Media’s Softer Tone on Opioid Crisis

Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures provides one of our favorite pieces on racial bias and the drug war. Read more about the “clear double standard in the visual framing of the opioid crisis.”

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Language Use in Media

Changing the Narrative is a resource created by journalists, lawyers, doctors, and advocates for the purpose of supporting accurate, evidence-based media coverage of issues related to substance use. Although this resource targets journalists, it is helpful for anyone thinking through language and stigma.


The End of the Addict

This blog post by Meghan Ralston of Drug Policy Alliance reminds us that “Addict is a word so singularly loaded with stigma and contempt that it’s somewhat appalling that we continue to let it be used so easily and indiscriminately.”



Stigma and People Who Use Drugs Fact Sheet from Drug Policy Alliance

Principals of Harm Reduction from Harm Reduction Coalition

Stigma Reducing Language from Shatterproof

Whitewashing of the Opioid Crisis from the Chicago Reporter

Opioids and Race from Changing the Narrative

The War on Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush by Jay-Z and Molly Crabapple


Special thanks to Zoe Martin del Campo for supporting NEXT in consolidating the information found on this page.

Do you have a resource we should add to this page? Is a link broken? Please contact us.