Discrimination Against Drug Users

The stigma associated with drug use and addiction has resulted in discriminatory policies that exclude people who use drugs or have drug convictions from many of the rights and opportunities available to other Americans.

Although drug use and addiction impact all categories of race, gender, class, and age, sensationalized media coverage of drug use has resulted in a popular but inhuman caricature of the typical drug user based in racism and classism.

Five decades of the drug war has resulted in the widespread belief—promoted by the media and “tough on crime” elected officials—that people who use drugs are “bad” and deserving of punishment, which has resulted in a host of policies that systematically discriminate against drug users. The taboo associated with drug use is so ingrained that even many people who support drug policy reform hold negative assumptions about people whose drug use they consider problematic.

Emily's Story

There are very limited protections against discrimination based on a record or prior arrest, meaning landlords have the ability to deny housing based on often old and irrelevant information — with nearly half of landlords in one survey saying they would reject housing applications from those with a criminal record. Because drug war enforcement has disproportionately targeted people of color, discrimination in private housing closes options to people who have been most impacted by the drug war.

Even though Emily Ramos’ father, Emiliano Ramos, had lived in public housing in New York City all his life, when he completed his prison sentence for selling marijuana, he was barred from returning to his home.

Learn more about how the drug war invades our homes at UprootingTheDrugWar.org.

Ways to Fight Discrimination

One of DPA’s highest priorities is to end discrimination against all people who use drugs by reducing the stigma associated with drug use and advocating for compassionate, judgment-free approaches to addiction.

Public Education
Even among those who use drugs, some are more severely ostracized than others. Not all drugs are created equal when it comes to stigmatization, but often the assumptions that lead us to view certain substances or substance use behaviors as more harmful or immoral than others stem from misinformation and structural racism.

In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, sensational media stories and political rhetoric about crack cocaine led to the widespread condemnation of “crackheads” and “crack mothers,” who were almost exclusively portrayed as African-American despite the fact that white people used crack at similar rates. The result was the draconian, racially discriminatory sentencing laws that we are still fighting to correct today.

DPA advocates for compassionate, evidence-based policies shaped by scientific fact, not fear and hyperbole. By advocating for honest and accurate public education about drugs, addiction, and the people that use drugs, we hope to lift the stigma associated with drug use and to end the cycle of discrimination perpetuated by the war on drugs.

Language Choices 
The way we talk about drugs and the people who use them can create or uphold stigma. Words like “crackhead” and “junkie” dehumanize a person who may be struggling with addiction. Focus on the whole person, not a behavior. Instead of “addict,” refer to a “person who uses drugs problematically” or a “person with substance use disorder.”

Drug Testing 
Mandatory drug testing by employers, schools and hospitals is widely used to exclude those who test positive for drug use from job opportunities, student financial aid, and public benefits, even when the drug use has no bearing on ability to perform a job or receive aid. Positive drug tests are even used to prosecute and jail pregnant people suspected of substance use or to send parolees back to prison, regardless of their underlying offense or history of drug addiction. 

Drug testing has become a tool of discrimination, and DPA has been involved in a variety of legal challenges to expansive drug testing policies and unreliable drug testing technologies.

Voices from the Front Lines of the Drug War: Lorenzo Jones

Lorenzo Jones is the Executive Director of A Better Way Foundation in Connecticut. He has been a lifelong organizer and advocate for drug policy reform. Listen to Lorenzo explain how the drug war dehumanizes people.

Discrimination Against Drug Users