There is no shortage of stigma still associated with people living with addiction to drugs and alcohol. From the assumption that their addiction is a choice to the assumption that every, or nearly every, homeless person is addicted to drugs, the stigma surrounding drugs, alcohol, and those who are living with addiction is real, and damaging. It is real for so many reasons, bringing with it a sad and tangible social affect that hurts people living with addiction and their families.

What’s worse is that typically, very little of what the public decides and how the public votes is based on solid education from non-biased sources. Without the proper education, effective legislation can’t be easily executed, or written at all. Unfortunately, few politicians have been a positive force behind the necessary change, and many of them have profited endlessly from legal addictive drugs while crusading against the vulnerable people living with addiction, and their families.  One prime example of this is the never ending War on Drugs, which has seen an increase in addiction, and as of 2017, cost nearly one trillion dollars.

The Town Drunk

perception of addictionAlcoholism has a long and well-documented history. Within medieval Europe, temperance movements among the lower classes usually revolved around religious institutions. By that time, most societies understood that people who are addicted to alcohol can be violent, and experience blackouts. This is part of the reason that, across the major world religions, temperance became a badge of honor, and the push to utilize alcohol solely for ceremonial purposes. The stereotypical town drunk was a man who spent his nights in a pub, stumbling home to an impoverished family. The risk of alcoholism certainly rises among poor and working class families, but family histories of addiction and alcoholism, a major contributing factor, can be found across the board.

Opium Dens

In the 19th century, opium dens existed all over China, and when Chinese people began to steadily immigrate to the United States, they brought one of their favorite luxuries with them. Opium was originally developed in the Middle East, and quickly spread to China via the Silk Road. Within China, the government soon began cracking down on opium dens, citing that they attracted prostitution, and caused addiction. The local governments in Chinatowns in several United States cities did the same, with the last known opium den in New York shut down in the 1950s. Opium dens were not places of good repute, but this didn’t stop them from becoming popular. Opium dens spread from China into France, when French colonists brought opium home from the Indochine War.

From Villain to Victim

The notion that people living with addiction are undeserving and deviant persisted through the 20th century. When the War on Drugs began in the 1970s, the image presented to Americans was one of a easily-destroyed monster that could be locked away. This, though, was also what people who were not addicted and had no addicted loved ones thought of any drug crisis – that a decision to get high could just as easily be left alone than indulged. This type of thinking has typically led to uninspired support for drug referendums that are based less on science, and more on public perception. Public perception, though, can be changed, and fortunately, as the years go by, that very thing is happening.

The War on Drugs

One of the few benefits of the United States’ War on Drugs is the heightened awareness of the dangers of drugs, types of drugs, and terrible effects. As a result, Gen Xers and Millennials have a deeper overall understanding of how drugs not only affect the body, but also affect the mind. With the advent of the internet, and wifi, a different portrait of addiction eventually emerged. Instead of a vile, villainous individual who was raucous, and inevitably violent, and homeless, the face of addiction became what it was: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and loved ones struggling with mental illness and stress. That addiction could be a likely outcome for a person with a family history of addiction entered mainstream drug education, and these educational efforts led to a stronger, and more aware society. However, timing is everything: the most comprehensive drug and alcohol prevention programs have evolved more recently, after the nation’s peak output of addictive opioid prescriptions. Nancy’s Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign stuck strongly in the hearts of many people, which may also have contributed to the public’s overall lack of knowledge about the harmful effects of drug addiction, save for the youngest among us.

Some of the huge steps that the generations born in the late 70s and the 80s have made include the understanding of addiction not as a choice, but as a chronic condition. Millennials, in particular, are the generation born during the Crack Epidemic in New York, and the experiences living with addicted parents and neighbors showed them how drugs can affect entire communities. Fast-forward to the 2010s, and the terror of a sweeping addiction has moved out of the cities, and out of the hands of urban-dwelling people of color. For nearly two decades, two drugs have been on a rampant mission to destroy the United States: opioids, particularly heroin and fentanyl, and amphetamines.

The Rehab Industry

The Opioid Epidemic is so bad, the President declared a National State of Emergency in response to the terrifying numbers shared with the public in 2018. 2017 saw approximately 72,000 deaths as a result of drug overdose, and 88,000 deaths related to the over-consumption of alcohol. These numbers, of course, are startling, and may continue to rise as the demand for more and stronger drugs spreads all over the world. One of the oddest effects of the many long-running drug crisis in the nation is the distrust of rehab. By the admission of anyone in the industry, there are questionable facilities, but there are so many reputable and effective facilities. From now on, any drug epidemic will be different: today, we have specialized tools that can help people to heal from the trauma that led them to drugs, and the physical effects that everyone seeks to avoid.

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