Marissa Explains it All #43 – Addiction Morality

I’m going to spend an entry today talking about something that in which, admittedly, I have very little personal experience. With opiates being declared a public health crisis once again, I couldn’t help but notice the way in which addiction and drug use are approached in this country.

If you’ve ever watched an episode of COPS, most of the time, the targets of their stops and investigations are related to drug use and possession. The 80s saw the launch of the war on drugs. People, primarily those of color, are arrested and kept in the for-profit, quota-based prison system for drug charges.

Yet, Indiana recently ended a needle-exchange program that reduced the spread of infection by 80-percent, and they used a vague Bible quote to justify its removal. Seattle, a city that lives on the mirage of being progressive so that the giant corporations aren’t disturbed during their gentrification and homeless relocation projects, ends needle-exchange programs. Most of the time, ending existing programs, or refusing to start new ones, are approached from a point of selective morality.

When I say selective morality, what I mean by that is picking and choosing which substances are bad, and painting those who use the bad ones as criminals; not to mention, deciding that persons of color using are criminals and selling, but young white kids are just experimenting and made poor decisions, but that’s another conversation.

My brother-in-law and former roommate once told the story of his uncle being incarcerated for heroin, and when he asked what rehabilitation he would have access to, he was told, “you’re not here to be rehabilitated, you’re here to be punished.” That’s the mentality we’re dealing with when it comes to drugs, and it’s no coincidence that the War on Drugs was a product of the Moral Majority.

When I was in elementary school in the early 90s, we had anti-drug assemblies constantly. We also had anti-smoking and anti-drinking ones, but those were different. The anti-drinking ones were only “underage” drinking-based. The anti-smoking ones were health-based. The anti-drug ones though were about drugs being bad, and (drug users being bad.)

It gets more selective than that. Caffeine is as addictive as any of these drugs, and withdrawal symptoms are very similar. Headache, crankiness, fatigue, cravings… All symptoms anyone who has tried to quit something addictive experiences. When it’s drugs, it’s called detox – the word implied being that the substance you’ve been using and now are not was toxic and needs to be cleansed. In other words, you need to be cleansed because what you were using was dirty and therefore made you dirty. Funny enough though, if the addiction is coffee, put your anger symptoms on a t-shirt and it becomes a witty anecdote. Or having a glass of wine being on your must-haves list is fine, but smoking a joint (although less so nowadays) is stigmatized.

Let’s go back to the idea of not being rehabilitated but being punished though. The way this country frames this narrative is that if you’ve gotten addicted to something that we don’t care for, you’re a criminal and deserve to be punished for it. However, if it’s alcohol, you’re only a bad person if we catch you driving after using it (and therefore can make a lot of money off it.)

When you raise a generation that ostensibly teaches that anyone who uses any kinds of drugs (Except the kind we’ve made legal) is bad, trying to sell it, doesn’t care about you, and is an awful person who needs to be punished, is it any wonder that we treat those who have become addicts and seek help like criminals instead of people who are sick? Even the idea of rehabilitation is stigmatized and mocked, painted in the usual Bullshit Bootstrap narrative of that you couldn’t do it yourself, so you must be weak. The same narrative flows through 12-Step programs that make you accept that you have no control and are weak before your addiction; nevermind the religious overtones that go along with it.

All that being said, I’ve never used most drugs, and I probably never will. But that doesn’t mean that I think my friends who do are bad people. I don’t think that means anyone who does deserves to go to prison for the rest of their lives. I don’t think that means that anything that is designed to help drug users as opposed to punish them needs to go away to teach them a lesson.

Therefore, when the government declares opiates as a public health crisis, it’s not actually about helping any of these people get better. It’s about declaring yourselves the morally righteous. It’s blended with an aspect of fighting crime and punishing users, because the last forty years have been spent stigmatizing and blanketing anyone who uses certain kinds of drugs as criminals who deserve punishment and confinement. It’s an easy publicity move to sell, because as long as our narrative is framed that way, it makes the government money, it selectively punishes minorities and poor people, it feeds the for-profit prison system, and a bunch of smug white people get to feel morally self-righteous for their drug of choice being Merlot.


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