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Stop blaming addicts

December 01 2022
@ Marius Samavicius @ Marius Samavicius

On using drugs, the stigma attached to addiction, and the problem with criminalisation. By Mat Amp

Blaming an addict for using is like judging a house for being made out of bricks. As an addict I’ve wrestled with the mechanics of addiction and the thorny issue of just how much blame I should accept for the ramifications of an obstinate and enduring habit. The answer to that is there is no easy answer because addicts are human beings and the only thing we have in common is this: we are all different in so many different ways.  

In my opinion, it is possible to accept responsibility for all the fucked up shit you’ve pulled in active addiction without wearing the blame like a concrete trench coat. While every addict differs from the next, my observations have been that an understanding network comprised of supportive services, friends and family (if you’ve got one) is far more likely to help someone into recovery than anger, blame, guilt or recrimination.  

Sure, it can be difficult to live with an addict but being angry with that addict for using ain’t going to achieve jack shit. Sever contact with someone if you can’t abide their chaos but please don’t do it to teach them a lesson or punish them.
Anger directed at an addict just for being an addict is fuel to their fire, feeding the greed of self loathing’s infinite furnace that burns bright at the heart of what I do now recognise to be a disease. I know it is easier said than done, to withhold our anger and frustration, but if we really want to understand addiction we have to stop blaming people who suffer under its yoke.  

It’s understandable, the way that people make these emotive judgements about addicts. After all we are bombarded with mixed messages when it comes to addiction from an early age. People are the victims of drugs, according to the Daily Mail et al, but addicts are lambasted for being the scourge of our society. At the same time booze is everywhere; on billboards, in corner shops and mixed with sweet pop in bottles that are marketed to under 18s. Meanwhile, heroin addicts have been cast as society’s lepers for a long time. And while the thieving pockmarked junkie stereotype is front and centre of every anti-drugs campaign, there are many heroin addicts who quietly indulge their habits.

You see, the truth is, the truth that nobody dare speak, is that a vast majority of the problems associated with drug addiction are the direct result of criminalisation. You can argue about this all day long but what is undeniable is that we find the same problems with the criminalisation of drugs as we saw with alcohol prohibition in the early 20th Century. Okay, let’s leave the detail of that argument for another day and just make the point that so much of the way we perceive and talk about addicts is shaped by this crusade to criminalise drug users.  

Long-standing, entrenched opinions have led to the widespread use of labels such as ‘junkie’. These labels dehumanise addicts and when you think about it they are no better than labelling someone with mental health issues as a nutter. People are struggling with addiction, they are not just another junkie to be abandoned at the margins, like trash.

One of my lowest points as an addict came when the Maudsley Hospital refused me access to counselling because I was in active addiction. The twisted irony of this policy is clear when you consider that the entire reason I wanted counselling in the first place was to understand my addiction so that I could stop using drugs. In other words, they wouldn’t give me access to the counselling I needed to stop using drugs because I was using drugs. They told me to get clean and reapply. As far as I am concerned this is part of the stigmatisation, labelling and blame of addicts that is the result of a criminal justice system based on the prohibition of drugs and the criminalisation of the user.  

Recently I have repeatedly heard people suffering with mental health issues express disapproval at having to share emergency accommodation with drug addicts, citing addicts’ chaotic behaviour as something they shouldn’t have to put up with.   

What has disturbed me is the tone in which these criticisms have been delivered. There is a blame attached, a kind of disgust at having to put up with our dysfunctional behaviour.

The truth is that none of us should have to be living with anyone we don’t want to live with. We should be able to choose our flatmates like everybody else, but in the meantime we have to stick together because if we can’t do that, then what hope do we have that others are going to respect us.