Support, Scorn and Stigma: Changing our Perspectives on Substance Use

February 10, 2024

Alfie Lawson (he/him/his), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer

Yes. I use substances. Depending on your perspective, you might be able to relate to that. You may also find it upsetting. Anyone reading this who knows me might be concerned or want to offer support. Conversely, any future employers could be put off if they find this. Think of substances and thoughts of addiction, instability and disorganisation come to mind.

The truth of the matter, however, is less flamboyant. I drink alcohol and I smoke weed. Occasionally I may have a cigarette, and I usually mix tobacco with weed when I smoke, but that’s it. I’ve tried a few other things a handful of times, but all of these substances are legal where I live.

Still, if you search the phrase “I use substances” on the internet, you’ll get a rather stigmatic response. There will be few results analysing how drugs and lifestyle can combine. Instead, addiction help sites and page after page focused on substance use disorders will fill your screen.

I can’t pretend there aren’t reasons for this. Addiction is a brain disorder that has claimed many innocent lives. My current home is Vancouver, which has a longstanding reputation for substance abuse in its Downtown Eastside. Moreover, British Columbia has experienced a fivefold increase in drug overdose deaths since 1996. The current death rate in BC is approximately 38% higher than the US national average.

These statistics aren’t exactly centred on what I take. Much of the above is a result of individuals using harder substances, such as opioids, heroin, meth, cocaine and other street drugs.

Regardless, everything mentioned here is in some way harmful. Alcohol and tobacco addiction are serious issues. Weed dependency is also likely to be a real phenomenon. But to me, the drugs that I use are just vices—recreational things, to be taken with safety and moderation in mind. Thus, I hope that substance use and day-to-day life can coexist. 

What should be done with drugs?

I don’t know too much about substance abuse or addiction. I’m simply thankful that, as far as I’m aware, these issues have never affected me or, indeed, most of the people in my life.

That’s not to say I don’t make adjustments to my drug use. Having days in the week in which I use no substances has always been crucial. Additionally, I take the odd extended break from smoking or consuming alcohol. I wouldn’t say that this has ever been a last resort to avoid spiralling on my chosen substances, but it has a cleansing effect on my physical and mental well-being.

For the most part though, they are merely a way to relax or to help myself through social engagements. And I know I’m not the only person who does this. There’s probably a broader criticism about how our society functions to be made here, yet this is the truth for a lot of people. If substances are taken recreationally, with an attitude of caution in mind, then it shouldn’t be scorned in public discourse.

Instead, there should be greater sympathy and understanding given to those who fall victim to drugs. Certain vices, such as gambling and alcohol, are so ingrained in our culture that there is no question about their legal status. But they obviously upend lives. It is my opinion that most other substances are no different. They will always be in our society, and therefore protecting and educating individuals, rather than punishing them, is key.

To this end, it is positive to see more substances being legalised and decriminalised. The trade and distribution of all drugs shouldn’t be allowed, but greater regulation and reduced emphasis on individual users is important. In BC, adults aged 18 and older are no longer prosecuted if caught with less than 2.5 grams of substances including heroin, morphine, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. Meanwhile, harm reduction centres and information on social programs and treatment (if needed) are more prevalent.

Life with substance use

As someone who uses drugs recreationally, these steps appear vital and should be better supported. It is clear that the “war on drugs” approach has failed us, some more than others. Thus, if we want to create a more inclusive, less prejudicial society that helps us when we are vulnerable and respects personal freedom when we are not, a more open attitude to drug use is worth considering.

In the meantime, I will continue to get high and/or drunk from time to time. Maybe the urge to do so will fade as I get older and I prioritise my health more. Even so, I’ll always be weary of ever feeling like I need to take anything, and continue to take breaks whenever I want, for whatever reasons I want. Yes, I take substances. But so what?

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