The current fashion for linking spice users to supernatural horrors is the latest chapter in the stigmatisation of high risk drug users. By Harry Shapiro
I was preparing my presentation on spice for the recent HIT Hot Topics conference. I’d planned a straightforward resume of where were ‘at’ with synthetic cannabinoids. Then the following was brought to my attention, a quote from John Mann MP speaking in the House of Commons on October 16th
“Zombies are running wild in our communities, Sometimes those zombies are naked, their minds addled by a psychoactive street substance called Mamba”
Then I saw this and my talk changed
The link between drug use and demonic imagery has a long and invidious history, back to the earliest days of sensational and scurrilous ‘yellow journalism’ in America. But in truth, this type of stigma goes back much further, to the earliest civilisations. So with due apologies for big historical leaps and gross over-simplifications, here is my take on all this.
The backstory of stigma
The idea of the scapegoat is one of the most deeply rooted figures in human consciousness and serves within society to relieve intense anxiety and the ritual purging of guilt. In his book, Violence and the Sacred, French philosopher Rene Girard wrote, “The sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence; it prompts the entire community to choose victims outside itself”.
In Middle Eastern desert cultures, during time of war, disease or famine, a goat would literally be sent beyond the city walls laden with the sins of the city to appease whatever god needed appeasing.
This took on a more sinister aspect in Ancient Greece when some disposable members of society such as slaves, disabled people or criminals would be taken outside the gates and stoned to death or thrown from the city walls (academics differ on the finer points of grisly detail). According to Thomas Szasz in Ceremonial Chemistry, these disposable citizens were called pharmakoi meaning the ‘poisoned ones’ and you don’t need to be a linguistic expert to follow that etymology through to modern day thinking.
It was in Ancient Egypt that the reputation of the poor old goat took another hammering being the sacred image for Baphomet, the god of magic in the city of Mendes. Anyone who has seen the old Hammer Horror film, The Devil Rides Out might recall the evocation of the Goat of Mendes, (‘the devil himself’ says Christopher Lee) sitting cross-legged from on high surveying his minions. The goat became not only a victim of guilt purging but a feared demonic entity in its own right, cementing the relationship between blame and the supernatural.
Fear and loathing
Down the centuries, drugs have been controlled for mainly functional and political purposes: fear of undermining the workforce or the military, concerns that the venue itself, like the 17th century coffeehouse, would be a meeting place for plotting and sedition. Cannabis was banned in Egypt in the 19th century largely because a new regime wanted to modernise the country on western lines and believed the hashish smoking symbolised archaic ways out of step with the zeitgeist.
But it was in America that fear of drug use moved beyond the ostensibly ‘pragmatic’ to an expression of psychological trauma, symbolising national anxieties about the future of a country desperate to make its way on the global stage. From the mid-19th century onwards, moral reformers and campaigners of every stripe were horrified at the rampant growth of urbanisation which saw wave upon wave of immigrants herded into over-crowed cities, living in acute poverty and deprivation and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. There was economic depression in the latter part of the century where the finger pointed to the Chinese community, encouraged to come help build the railways, but now. ‘coming over here taking our jobs’, which conveniently morphed into hysteria about white slavery and opium dens. The First World War, the collapse of the economy and the Great Depression all produced seismic shocks in the body politic. And so like times of stress in the Ancient World, scapegoats had to be found. Drug users fitted the bill perfectly; they were disposable citizens using foreign drugs like heroin, cocaine and cannabis and, if African-American, Chinese or Mexican, were accused of preying on young people and especially young white women to get them hooked, seducing them and so diluting the ‘purity’ of the race.
Every picture tells a story
As ever more stringent drug laws were passed in the inter-wat years, so the anti-drug campaigners were ably assisted by mass circulation newspapers and by one man in particular, William Randolph Hearst, the model for Citizen Kane and the first press baron. He employed journalist Winifred Black to write hundreds of columns about the evils of drugs, but more than that, he knew full well that a picture was worth a thousand words and so he engaged the best graphic artists to illustrate the numerous articles and columns with the most menacing symbols of external threat embedded in both religion and popular culture – grim reapers, demons and vampires.
Without pushing the connection too far, it might have been no coincidence that just as the zombie has now been evoked as a startling image to describe the spice user, so the graphic artists of the 1920s and 1930s hung on the coattails of the first wave of horror movies which themselves spoke to a febrile atmosphere in the land.
The vampire was probably the most potent read-across to the injecting drug user. The template vampire movie was the German film Nosferatu (1922) released at a time when Berlin was the drug capital of Europe. The taxonomy of the vampire stated he was one of the walking dead, an unwelcome and feared society outsider who could never recover from his condition, looked pale and emaciated, only came out at night, used sharp teeth to draw blood, needed to infect others and was especially drawn to young women who became slaves to evil.
What goes around
And all of that sensational imagery from decades ago, is still with us especially in times of heightened anxiety about drugs. This poster was produced by Greater Manchester Police in the mid- 1980s as the UK was gripped by an unprecedented epidemic of heroin use alongside some headlines which tell the same story. And aside from the ‘drug fiend’,’ dope fiend’ meme are ‘junkie’ (often accompanied by ‘scum’) and ‘addict’.
The needle and the damage done
So what damage do these images and language cause?
Stigmatisation occurs when a person possesses an attribute or status (a ‘stigma’) making that person less desirable or acceptable in the eyes of others. When stigma takes centre stage, the person becomes identifiable only by the label attached to them. So, in this case, the person is not a mother, a father, an accountant or whatever, they are simply a junkie, an addict or an alcoholic. It reinforces the guilt and shame that people already feel, prevents people coming forward for treatment and worse still, because of low self-esteem, they often buy into the narrative. I recall saying to a service user once, ‘don’t you get pissed off being called a junkie?’. ‘Not really’ he said, ‘That’s what I am’.
To my mind, this is nothing less than hate language. The law no longer tolerates hate language directed towards people on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. I’m not expecting the law to intervene here, and it doesn’t necessarily need legislation to outlaw language which demeans and stigmatises.
When The Sun headlined a story about Frank Bruno’s mental health problems with ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’, there were a storm of protest. These days nobody in health or social care or the media calls anybody a cripple, a spastic or retarded. These words have been outlawed in professional discourse and practice.
Words to the Unwise
There have been attempts to educate the media on this. DrugScope produced a media guide to drugs – http://www.onlinelibraryaddictions.stir.ac.uk/files/2017/07/DrugScopeMediaGuideSpreads.pdf
and the Society of Editors published some guidance on the use of language in talking about drug users.
Dr Adam Winstock recently picked up on the zombie/spice issue
while as part of the celebration of its 50-year anniversary, Addaction is specifically seeking to address the issue of stigma.
A recent paper in the Public Health journal on disrespecting language in treating people with drug problems identified 23 terms the authors say should be avoided. The article highlights were:
- Wording about substance use disorder and psychoactive substances should be appropriate.
- Medical journals should request authors to eliminate terms that do not meet this standard.
- Inappropriate terms can induce biases negatively influencing social and public-health policies.
- Use of appropriate language increases chances that patients will receive the best treatment.
- Use of appropriate language increases chances for rational policies on psychoactive substances.
So what more could be done? The law does play a role here: it sends out messages about what society does or does not think is acceptable behaviour. Had the Sexual Offences Act not been passed in 1967. David Cameron could not have stood outside Number 10 to say how proud he was that gay marriage would be part of his legacy.
But UK law reform is not imminent – and I am also discussing here those with serious drinking problems. People with alcohol problems have been more figures of fun than fear – comedians from WC Fields to Billy Connolly partly built careers portraying ‘drunks’. And while people have been tagged as ‘drug fiends, devilry is more applied to the alcohol itself – the demon drink – suggesting it’s the drug user who is evil rather than the drugs. But while serious alcohol use does not attract the same level of public disgust as its drug counterpart, even so the guilt, shame and stigma is no less keenly felt. So good to see the lazy and damaging language of alcohol problems also being challenged
I do think that the use of terms like junkie can be as much a form of casual unthinking shorthand as deliberately malicious, If this is right, then much could be done simply to raise awareness among the media and professionals as to the impact of this language.
It is very hard for those with existing problems or in recovery to be pro-active in this respect, although social media could play a role. One problem with social media of course is that it is often an echo chamber when we interact only with those who agree with us. But something like #metoo certainly captured the mainstream media attention.
All the main UK drug treatment services have media and communication teams who could collaborate to just raise awareness: challenge language, devise a collective campaign and go beyond the echo chamber.
There is an organisation called STOPHATE who act as intermediaries between the victims of hate language and hate crimes and the police. Hate language against drug users is not in their remit as it is not illegal, but they have said to me that they will log complaints which could help build up a data set for use in a campaign.
So there you have it. Could 20Hate-een be the year to tackle the language of stigma?