‘Drug user’: Reconsidering the stereotype

| Forum Editor

Just say the words “drug user,” and all sorts of negative connotations come to mind: shady back alleys, gang violence and lengthy jail sentences. Of course, the word “drug” itself, depending on the context, has a completely different set of stereotypes: lines at the pharmacy, small, white paper bags and the familiar orange-tinted plastic bottles.

The extent to which these stereotypes are true is a matter of debate, but one thing is certain: Our society labels drugs in a bizarre and ultimately hypocritical way. At the end of the day, the majority of people attending this school are drug users, and of those, quite a few are drug abusers. Of course, we don’t call them that.

Despite the fact that alcohol is a drug, most people don’t think of a drug user when they think of an alcoholic or a drunk—not to mention the amount of prescription drugs that many students take, both with and without prescriptions. Nor do most people think of professionals and journalists as drug users as they down their fifth cup of coffee of the day. Caffeine is a genuine, bona-fide drug, and yet—purely because of its widespread social acceptance—we don’t label people reliant on caffeine as drug users. Starting with theobromine in chocolate, after a point, it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t a drug.

Of course, at this point I’m probably splitting hairs and focusing on semantics. But I think the larger point still applies: Our perception of what a “drug user” actually is differs from reality. We wouldn’t call famous existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, with his love of amphetamines and mescaline, a “drug user.” We wouldn’t call renowned mathematician Paul Erdős, who extensively used Benzedrine and other stimulants, a “drug user.” And of course, I think it’s safe to say that enough people believed that Obama was a good choice for president despite his admitted cocaine use. The point is not to glorify or vilify such famous people who led successful lives despite diving into recreational drugs, but rather to illuminate the one caveat to all drug use that people seem to forget: Drugs work differently for everyone.

Some people have to go their whole lives without drinking alcohol because they know that they have addiction problems. Some people can extensively use stimulants and become acclaimed academics. Some drug users go on to become rock stars; others end up in the gutter; and yet others end up somewhere in between.

It’s all too easy to stereotype people when scary buzzwords such as “drug user” pop up. It’s even easier to proselytize those people and easier still to condemn them for their behavior. But the truth is often far deeper than labels can manage to describe, and when our stereotypes lead to prejudice and disrespect, we commit the same mistake that everyone else does—after all, it’s human nature to judge and human nature to stereotype. Let’s just be sure not to pull the trigger too quickly.