Moving Beyond ‘People First Language’ – A Glossary Of Contested Terms In Substance Use

Committed engagement from stakeholders across the drugs field means that the field remains one in which discussion and debate has flourished. This discourse exists within the public realm and reflects the values and instincts of the public as well as those of professionals and academics and, crucially, the opinions and experiences of people who use drugs.

One of the issues in such a complex discourse with so many stakeholders is that language develops that excludes some stakeholders. Some professional and academic discourse is unintelligible to people whose specialist knowledge and perspective lies outwith the professional or the academic world. Likewise, there is a rich language amongst people who use drugs to describe their experiences and communicate with each other. Some of this, given the illegal and sometimes clandestine nature of drug use is deliberately exclusive of others.

A glossary of all the terms used would be a huge undertaking. This project sought to identify terms that are contested or commonly misunderstood. The aim has been to explain the nature of contention and, where terms may be misunderstood, account for this. Where appropriate, SDF’s own preferred use of language is given and explained.

The drugs field contains a lot of language that is offensive to some people. This is because drug use is a stigmatised activity. People who use drugs; people who have a drug problem; people in treatment and people who may be regarded as being in recovery all suffer stigma as do their families and communities. Self-stigma means that people may use stigmatising terms to describe themselves and their situation. The issue is delicate and complex.

This resource allows people to understand contested terms and understand how language can result from and perpetuate stigma. In Scotland, there is an emerging consensus on the use of people-first language – using ‘people who use drugs’ rather than ‘drug users’ or ‘drug misusers’ or ‘addicts’, for example. There has also been a commitment in the latest drug strategy to use acceptable terms. However, there is a long way to go. We cannot continue to think that people can be included or supported, never mind empowered, by people and services that have adopted languages and notions which reflect and perpetuate societal stigma.

The hope is that this resource will help support people to reflect and change their use of language and be sensitive to the fact that language can betray miscomprehensions, prejudices and stigma that sustain the marginalisation and disempowerment of people, some of whom are amongst the most vulnerable people in Scottish society.


*David Liddell, CEO Scottish Drugs Forum