Blog Post

Stigma Goes Viral

Meghan Ralston

An eye-poppingly offensive infographic has been making the social media rounds this week, even making appearances in unlikely places like

Have you seen “The Faces of Drug Arrests?”  It features disturbing photos of people arrested on drug charges, people with scabs and sores on their faces, with sunken eyes and cheekbones and the like. It is so hurtful, and factually flimsy, and profoundly stigmatizing to the people prominently featured.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that it was created by people who really ought to know better: a company that promotes drug abuse rehabilitation facilities.  When did recovery become less about compassion and hope, and more about just generating “clicks” and “going viral?”

I made my concerns known to them via my personal twitter account. Take a look at a portion of the exchange:

It is disingenuous to present the shocking photos and imply that they accurately reflect the toll that drugs – and drugs alone – have taken. The photos don’t make clear if any of the people featured had any other illnesses which may contributed to their appearance. Also no mention of any traumatic experiences, physical assault or injuries, mental health issues, or whether or not any of the people had any medical care at all in the recent past. This is not to suggest that heavy and continued drug misuse can’t take a physical toll – it can. But to post these photos, with no context whatsoever, isn’t telling the full story of these human beings and why they look fatigued and unwell.  Only at the very bottom of the infographic do they state:

“The deterioration seen in consecutive photos is not necessarily the direct result of drugs or addiction”

But then they don’t go on to explain the myriad other reasons why people can look very different from year to year.

DPA actively opposes stigma against people who use drugs. My colleague, Sharda Sekaran, recently countered some of these inaccurate portrayals of the “faces of drug users” with her op-ed, “Dear Media: This is What People Who Use Marijuana Look Like.”  Sekaran’s piece perfectly illustrates DPA’s commitment to ensuring that the media get it right: we take very seriously the rights of people who use drugs to not be portrayed in ways that are inaccurate or offensive.

I recently wrote about the negative consequences of stigmatizing people who struggle with drugs. I talked about how hard it is, when you’re in the thick of your drug use, to know that many people see you as nothing but “a hopeless addict.” It makes your struggle that much more difficult and painful. People kick you when you’re down, rub salt into your open wounds, all of it. All of those clichés are true about how horribly we treat people who struggle with drugs.

Mocking the faces of people alleged to be using drugs, gasping at how “bad” they look, and judging them for looking sick or traumatized is shameful. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for looking at any of this as entertaining, or a way to promote a business, or whatever it is we think we’re doing by circulating these images. If addiction can be thought of a disease, what other disease or form of human suffering do we treat this way?

I want to believe that we are not cruel monsters. I want to believe that we’re capable of discouraging drug use among our young people in ways that have more to do with facts, alternatives, and common sense, and less to do with “look at what will happen to your face if you use drugs!”

I think these tweets sum it all up nicely:

Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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