Skewed media portrayals of people who use illegal drugs contribute to their dehumanization and the perpetuation of harmful policies and healthcare outcomes, according to new research published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. The research suggests that a shift away from the trope of drug-users being poor, uneducated, and likely of color would promote the humanization of drug-using individuals in order to improve health outcomes.
The study conducted a narrative review analyzing various types of media, including movies, newspapers, anti-drug campaigns, and academic research, to understand how the portrayal of drug users impacts public perception. The focus was on American media from the 20th century to present day, covering substances such as opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, and designer drugs.
Those using prescription opioids are often depicted as white and innocent, whereas heroin users are portrayed as poor, Black, and Hispanic, fueling biased policies and racial discrimination. Meanwhile, powder cocaine is associated with wealthy whites, whereas crack cocaine is linked to poor Black communities, resulting in harsher sentencing laws for the latter.
Adderall is associated with white, middle-class, college students, while meth users are depicted as “white trash,” affecting healthcare and law enforcement practices. In addition, initial portrayals of cannabis were linked to violent crimes and foreigners (although recent positive portrayals have influenced public opinion and laws), while designer drugs like “bath salts” and “Molly” are associated with terrifying behaviors, despite a lack of scientific basis.
The media’s negative portrayal perpetuates stigma, discriminatory laws, and uneven healthcare for people who use drugs. Implications show that sensationalized stories and negative portrayals make drug users appear “less than human”, contributing to their stigmatization and poor treatment in healthcare and legal systems. This dehumanization has direct outcomes such as human rights abuses, harsh penalties, and inadequate medical care — and as such, the study argues for a shift in perspective to see drug users as fellow human beings deserving of empathy and proper treatment.
It is important to note that the study is primarily focused on American media, which raises questions about the generalizability of its findings to other cultural and social contexts. Media portrayals and public perceptions of drug use tend to vary significantly across different countries and cultures, and a more global perspective could offer a fuller understanding of this issue.
In addition, the study does not delve into the psychological mechanisms through which dehumanizing portrayals in media contribute to real-world stigma and discrimination. It would be beneficial to unpack the possible cognitive processes — which would offer insight into why such portrayals are so effective in shaping public opinion, and thus how they could be counteracted.
Although future research should explore the use of dehumanizing language and how reducing stigma can improve healthcare outcomes for drug users, the study suggests that media should adopt a more realistic and humanizing portrayal of drug users, whilst the public should be encouraged to educate themselves on the complexities of drug use and addiction — in order to reduce stigmatization.
The study, “Role of the media in promoting the dehumanization of people who use drugs”, was authored by Daniel Habib, Salvatore Giorgi, and Brenda Curtis of Vanderbilt University.