Commentary  End the stigmatization of medical drugs

The word “drugs” is not a neutral term. It comes loaded with other meanings, many emerging from the discourse around the “War on Drugs” and enforcement of their illegal status. “Drugs” are dangerous, drugs are bad, and drugs destroy your life, your brain, and your relationships. But this moralizing view warps the realities involved in obtaining and taking legal drugs. This directly harms the day-to-day lives of the many people for whom drugs can be part of a necessary treatment – a source of freedom.

Just as a wheelchair or scooter can represent new mobility to people who otherwise might be confined to their homes, prescription drugs can be an essential component of medical care designed to give people a new ability to engage more fully in daily life – like students who need anxiety or ADD medications to take exams.

But instead, the social stigma around drug use – even legal drug use – leaks into the lives of people with disabilities, pain, or chronic illnesses. The characterization of illegal drug use as “immoral” means that many doctors go into discussions about prescription drugs – like Vicodin, Percocet, or other painkillers – with suspicion. Though virtually everyone will require prescription medication at some point in their life, the medical system directs disproportionate energy toward stopping the few people who will resell these drugs. In the meantime, for pain-causing diseases whose causes are still not clear, like fibromyalgia, the difficulty of proving pain can be extreme. These obstacles and general skepticism for medical professionals, furthermore, can dissuade people with legitimate medical needs from seeking out help.

The social stigma around drugs – frequently those that aid marginalized groups – also affects trans people. Too often, medical professionals treat trans patients with suspicion and disbelief, denying them access to hormone replacement therapy. At present, doctors who are not trans and cannot fully understand that experience have the power to restrict drugs that can seriously increase the quality of life for trans people. This can pose a serious mental and physical health risk for their patients, some of whom may seek out drugs on the black market.

Certainly prescription drug abuse and overprescription exist – but people seeking drugs should be treated as human beings with legitimate needs, not with skepticism.