Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Stigma distorts drug policy

Global Commission on Drug Policy says that ending the stigmatisation of drug users is the only route to an effective, evidence-based drug policy.

Countering prejudices about people who use drugs

The Global Commission on Drug Policy just (9 January 2018) launched a new report: The World Drug Perception Problem arguing that current perceptions of drugs and people who use them have led to an unrealistic and stigmatizing, rather than pragmatic and evidence-based approach to drug policy. The report aims to analyze the most common perceptions and fears, contrast them with available evidence on drugs and the people who use them, and provides recommendations on changes that must be enacted to support reforms toward more effective drug policies.

About the GCDP

In January 2011, a group of personalities from the Americas and Europe established the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Membership grew to encompass Commissioners from around the world. Ten former heads of State or Government, a former Secretary General of the United Nations, as well as other experienced and well-known leaders from the political, economic and cultural arenas felt, and still feel, that they must advocate for drug policies based on scientific evidence, human rights, public health and safety, for all segments of the population. Members include Kofi Annan, Ruth Dreifuss (former President of Switzerland) and our own Nick Clegg.

The report

With this report, the Global Commission confronts common perceptions and fears about drugs that form the background to repressive policies. In particular, it reviews the universal impulse behind the consumption of psychoactive substances, counters the negative portrayals of people who use drugs, and opposes the dominating narratives of crime and inevitable addiction that exist in many political discourses, in the media, and among the general public.

Harm vs control

The report argues that the national and international classification of drugs has little or no correlation to their scientifically-assessed harms, yet it has played a large role in shaping current perceptions of drugs and their potential dangers. The GCDP cites the example of heroin which currently poses the greatest risk to the individual taking it, but point out that when considering the harms to society as a whole, alcohol turns out to be the more harmful drug. The Global Commission urges leaders to provide reliable and consistent information, and review the evidence for more effective policies. It encourages all citizens to take part in the debate, sustain activism and advocacy, and keep governments, parliaments, the police and the judiciary, the media, and healthcare and social professionals accountable.


The report argues that commonly encountered terms such as “junkie,” “drug abuser,” or “crackhead” are alienating, defining people who use drugs solely by their consumption of a particular substance and designating them as “others” – physically inferior or morally flawed individuals. Negative language use also extends to people in recovery who are referred to as “clean,” implying they were previously unclean or dirty. And the term “drug abuse” can conjure associations with abhorrent behavior such as child abuse. The GCDP says that this misguided use of language and terminology is stigmatizing for people who use drugs. And stigma results in discrimination, which can be overt or systemic. As part of its campaign to remove the stigma from drug use, the Global Commission suggests a set of terms to refer to people who use drugs and drug issues in general to help shift the debate on drugs to a more balanced, person-centred one: Ruth Dreifuss, GCDP Chair summed up the Commission’s view:
We need to end the stigmatization of people who use drugs, as this leads to discrimination and supports repressive drugs laws based on moral judgment. Whether you think of someone and refer to them as a person who uses drugs or a “junkie” makes a huge difference in how you and society will treat them. This vicious cycle, which has been fueled for decades, must be broken. Opinion leaders should live up to their responsibility in shaping public perceptions on drugs, promoting non-discriminatory language, and respecting the full rights of all citizens.
  Blog posts in the drug and alcohol category are kindly sponsored by Breaking Free Group which has developed a powerful and adaptable digital health platform which targets the underlying psychological and lifestyle factors that drive addictive behaviours. Breaking Free has no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

The mission of Breaking Free Group is to create the widest possible access to evidence-based psychological interventions. 

To realise this, we have developed a powerful and adaptable digital health platform which targets the underlying psychological and lifestyle factors that drive addictive behaviours.

Breaking Free Online is a clinically-robust computerised treatment and recovery programme for substance misuse. It is enhanced by Staying Free, a powerful relapse prevention toolkit in an Android and iOS smartphone app. It has been commissioned by over 60 Local Authorities and implemented across the spectrum of alcohol and drug services by several leading national service providers.

1 thought on “Stigma distorts drug policy”

  1. Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform in Australia has tried since 1995 to break down the stigma and to show that those dependent on illegal drugs are their loved family members. Among other activities a remembrance ceremony is held each year to which all members of the community including politicians and police are invited. There has been some progress but it is slow and the stigma unfortunately remains in some parts of the community.
    Thank you to the very important work of the GCDP.

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