When I began using drugs, I didn’t have anyone I could safely go to for advice or help. Nobody in my life had told me anything about harm reduction or safer use. My parents saw my heroin use as a disciplinary issue that ought to be punished—an attitude that caused a fair amount of harm. I was on my own when it came to figuring out how to stay safe and alive.
Luckily for me, I was able to find the information I needed on various websites. However, it took me longer to understand that my drug use didn’t make me a sinner or a subhuman. I considered using drugs to be a terrible transgression, and detoxing the necessary penance—an incredibly unhealthy attitude. Though my use was functional and fairly positive, I felt a great amount of shame, only adding to the internalized trans- and homophobia that I am still working to overcome.
Slowly, though, I learned to get over the lies I’d heard in DARE-influenced high school health classes. I began to take pride in the ways I’d preserved my health and dealt with various issues I’d encountered. I stopped viewing abstinence as the only valid path. I began to develop my own views on the matter, rather than parroting stigmatizing and hurtful beliefs. I hope to help others do the same, preferably quicker than I managed.
If you’ve recently (or not so recently) begun using drugs, I want you to know that contrary to drug-war propaganda, this doesn’t make you any less valuable or deserving than anyone else. And addiction, if you end up struggling with it, doesn’t mean that you’re bad or broken, any more than suffering from depression or anxiety does. None of this is a moral failing.
You are not at fault for the conditions created by the War on Drugs.
Neither are health problems the inevitable result of drug use. They are largely the result of the conditions created by prohibition and the drug war. People don’t overdose because they’re foolish or because certain drugs are inherently bad; they do so because it is impossible to carefully and correctly dose drugs if you don’t know how strong they are and what they contain. Unlike substances sold legally, such as alcohol, drugs bought on the street don’t come with regulated ingredients lists. This makes them exceedingly dangerous, despite the many positives drugs may bring.
As for infections or wounds caused by shared or reused needles, if people could legally carry works without fearing arrest or harassment from the police, they’d be able to stock up on enough to never have to share or reuse. Legalizing possession of “paraphernalia” and opening more syringe service programs across the United States, without restricting their operations, would prevent a great many good people from falling ill or developing serious health conditions. Attributing fault to somebody who overdosed (or developed an infection, caught HIV, etc.) is a particularly cruel form of victim-blaming. You are not at fault for the conditions created by the War on Drugs.
Thus, if you run into legal troubles due to your drug use or struggle to manage your use, you mustn’t blame yourself, but the system that inflicts these harms. My own drug use has remained manageable primarily thanks to sheer luck. Being a white person from a privileged background has protected me. I’ve lived in the suburbs for virtually all of my life and that—together with my race and appearance—means I don’t have to worry about the constant searches that target heavily policed neighborhoods.
It is a feature, not a bug, of the racist War on Drugs that I am able to avoid the arrests and prison sentences imposed on members of Black, poor or otherwise marginalized communities for exactly the same actions. For an eloquent explanation of this horrific phenomenon, I would suggest readingThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Also, while all demographics use drugs at similar rates, addiction is not an equal-opportunity employer. People who are disadvantaged in any way—impoverished or unhoused, disabled or with mental illness, subjected to racism, classim, homophobia or any kind of discrimination or strife on a regular basis—are significantly more likely to develop problematic relationships with drugs.
Addiction is essentially an attempt to cope with pain or suffering of some sort. If you’re experiencing it, chances are that psychological and/or socio-economic stressors in your life have led you there. This does not make you weak.
Recovery, by the way, is not the same as abstinence from drugs. Instead, it means managing your life in a way that works for you.
Sadly, the unfairness of addiction doesn’t end there. Recovery is significantly harder if you’re excluded from employment, education or society at large. Willpower is a useful trait, but expecting people in such circumstances to rely on willpower alone is a form of blindness to the injustices of the world—a lie spread by high-profile recovery evangelists whose circumstances tended to be very different.
Have empathy for yourself if you’re struggling. Do not blame yourself for larger issues that are out of your control. Be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that you could recover completely if only you really wanted to.
Recovery, by the way, is not the same as abstinence from drugs. Instead, it means managing your life in a way that works for you—which, for many people, involves continuing to use drugs. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t reach every goal you set for yourself. Most of us try different things before we find a path that works, and very few of us manage it alone. There’s no shame in asking friends or family (biological or chosen) for support or practical help—that’s just a normal part of being human, especially when dealing with something as complex and serious as addiction.
On a related note, comparing yourself to people who are unlike you—or even people who are similar to you, or appear to be—isn’t productive. You’re you, not somebody else. The only person you should be comparing yourself to is other versions of yourself.
If you plan to seek formal treatment, I would suggest choosing something evidence-based (such as medications or contingency management) and/or finding a way to treat the underlying issues that led to your use to become problematic. However, these options are frustratingly inaccessible for many people. Avoid religious or 12-step rehabs. Not only are they very ineffective for most people (like 12-step programs themselves) and in need of radical overhaul, but they can be traumatizing—or worse. If you return to using opioids after a stint of enforced abstinence, you’ll be particularly vulnerable to overdose due to your decreased tolerance.
Be aware that most people naturally move past addiction in time without treatment—and that your safety is paramount.
Obtain, learn about and carry naloxone.
So when you use drugs, whatever your relationship with them, take care. Check what’s in them before you use: Fentanyl test strips are an inexpensive, imperfect but potentially lifesaving option—and you should use them for drugs sold to you as cocaine, methamphetamine or benzodiazepines, as well as heroin. If you inject drugs, don’t share or reuse needles: Accessing sterile works and supplies (whether through a local syringe program or online) is a marvelous step that allows you to avoid blood-borne diseases and infections. Switching to a less risky method of ingestion (snorting, smoking, boofing) is another great idea.
Read up on harm reduction techniques around the drugs you use and your preferred ways of using them—including advice and risks around using combinations of different drugs. Start low and go slow, as the saying goes. Use with other people present, if you have that option. And obtain, learn about and carry naloxone, the opioid-overdose reversal drug; drugs not sold as opioids can still contain them, and naloxone has so often made the difference between life and death.
Do all you can to stay safe and healthy. At the same time, don’t beat yourself up if you don’talways opt for the healthiest option. Societal barriers and personal circumstances mean it isn’t always possible. Many of us have had to use alone during COVID. Even adopting safer behavior or cutting back some of the time is something to be proud of.
And we need that pride in taking care of ourselves. Because when we seek medical help, doctors typically treat us like shit—not because we are, but because their profession shares society’s prejudices. Even if you have health care access, which many do not, it can be incredibly challenging to make use of it when the doctor-patient power imbalance is so great. Be careful about what you say to doctors, at least unless you are certain that they understand harm reduction.
We can be heroes, too, and many of us are.
Since the world is so cruelly biased and hateful towards people who use drugs, we are often left to look after each other. If we don’t, nobody else will. Contrary to the cliche, people who use drugs are not monsters. We’re just as good and deserving as anyone else. We can be heroes, too, and many of us are. We’re generally the ones who reverse overdoses. On more than one occasion I’ve seen someone prevented from reusing or sharing works by a friend or drug seller carrying extras (yes, people who sell drugs are often good people too).
So many of the great activists who’ve fought for harm reduction and against the drug war have been drug users themselves. The same applies to many of our most beloved cultural icons.
This goes back a long way. Opium was widely taken amongst 19th century poets and writers, some of whom became addicted to the substance. Thomas de Quincey published the classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1821. More recent examples of drug-using artists have included many who passed prematurely. They range from the German New Wave director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died of polysubstance overdose in 1982, to members of the so-called 27 Club like Jean-Michel Basquait and Janis Joplin, to Prince and Juice WRLD. I’m sure you can think of countless others. How many more great works could have been created if they’d been able to access a safe supply of legally regulated drugs?
So whenever someone makes you feel worthless for using drugs or struggling with addiction, remember the company you keep. Recall that using drugs is a normal human thing to do, and always has been. Know that the idea that certain drugs ought to be outlawed and their users punished is relatively new, based primarily in racism rather than science or logic—and that banning such substances has made them significantly more dangerous.
You are valuable and lovable. You are just as deserving of safety, health, freedom, love, housing, food, care and life as anyone else. Though you may be struggling or miserable, you are worthy of respect and decency. The general public may look down upon you and treat you terribly indeed, but they are wrong.
Don’t be angry at yourself or other people like you. Be angry at the politicians, policymakers and others who have failed us by perpetuating prohibition and ignoring both evidence and humanity. Know that you are far from alone.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
* M.L. is a writer living in the Washington, DC metro area. He’s the author of a number of novels. In his spare time he paints, dances, directs, acts, cooks and embroiders.