Why We Need to Change How We See Drug Users

by Claire Styffe

When I first told my family and friends that I was going to be volunteering at a needle exchange clinic over the summer, helping to distribute clean needles and collect used ones, I received a number of surprised and concerned reactions. 

“Wow,” said one friend, “that’s brave.” Another was even more direct, “Is there glass between you and the people coming in?”

This type of reaction isn’t all that surprising, and it would be dishonest to say that I wasn’t slightly nervous before my first shift.  Studies such as those conducted by Colleen L. Barry conclude that people tend to view drug addicts negatively and often perceive substance abuse not as a mental illness but rather a lack of moral fortitude [1]. This mentality is only strengthened by the fact that the most visible instances of drug usage are associated with marginalized people.  To many, the term ‘drug users’ is synonymous with homeless, unstable, and somewhat dangerous people.

My time spent volunteering at the needle exchange clinic in Vancouver was in fact pleasant and informative.  All the customers were courteous and grateful, the staff was supportive and not once did I feel the need for that glass panel that my friend had considered necessary.  My experience there was particularly illuminating for two reasons.  Firstly, it challenged a societal notion that I saw reflected back in myself - that drug users would be loud, aggressive and demanding.  Second, it provided a crucial but often overlooked perspective - that drug users are not easily identifiable. 

While many of the customers at the needle exchange certainly bore the characteristics that are typically associated with drug users (such as an unkempt appearance or atypical mannerisms) many of the customers were in fact very well composed.  They looked, for lack of a better expression, like ‘normal people’ and behaved cordially and calmly, telling me about their day, their job or their family. 

Too often, we perceive drug users as being completely separate from us, a subset of the population that we can neatly identify as different, and confine to the fringes of our perception.  This stratification makes it all the easier to foster the misplaced belief that drug users are morally flawed people, undesirable, and dangerous.  When such a barrier is present, it becomes more difficult for drug users to seek help and feel welcome in the community, thus further entrenching a divide that need not exist.  The stigmatization of substance abuse is not a productive view to hold and only serves as an obstacle to ensuring accessible and effective methods of medical treatment and community integration.  In order to help drug users access the resources they need and feel welcome in the community, we need to do away with the divisive notions that separate us from drug users. Enough with glass panels. 


Claire Styffe is a U3 student currently pursuing a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology as well as Urban Systems Geography.  She is fascinated by global health and has a particular interest in preventing and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.



1.     Barry, Colleen L., Emma E. Mcginty, Bernice A. Pescosolido, and Howard H. Goldman. "Stigma, Discrimination, Treatment Effectiveness, and Policy: Public Views About Drug Addiction and Mental Illness." Psychiatric Services 65, no. 10 (2014): 1269-272. doi:10.1176/appi.ps.201400140.