The Importance of Using Humanizing Language When Referring to People Who Use Drugs
Date:  10-22-2014

The Drug Policy Alliance responds to the Associated Press call for suggestions for its 2015 Stylebook
On August 4, 2014 Reentry Central posted an open letter by the late Eddie Ellis about the power of language that included the following:

“One of our first initiatives is to respond to the negative public perception about our population as expressed in the language and concepts used to describe us. When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons. All terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people. These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them.

In an effort to assist our transition from prison to our communities as responsible citizens and to create a more positive human image of ourselves, we are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE. People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.”

Reentry Central has been using terms such as Ellis suggested for many years, but we have not been so enlightened when it comes to using terms for people who use drugs, and we are grateful for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) for educating us and others on the importance of using more humanizing terms.

In response to an open call by the AP for suggestions or updates of its Stylebook the Drug Policy Alliance would like to see the word “addict” replaced by terms that are less negative. The DPA suggests:

  • Instead of “drug offender” try “person arrested for drugs” or “person convicted of a drug law violation.”

  • Instead of “ex-con” try “formerly incarcerated person.”

  • Instead of “drug injector” try “person who injects drugs.”

  • Instead of “drug user” and “drug dealer” try “person who uses drugs” or “person who sells drugs.”

    Some might scoff at this call for change in language, but for those who use drugs a little humanity might go a long way. Hearing oneself called a person who uses drugs rather than an addict or junkie can open one’s mind to that fact that someone sees him or her as a human being. The change in that person’s perception of himself or herself will not happen overnight, but if the AP and other media outlets, as well as the criminal justice system and counselors who work with those who use drugs start using the word “person” or “people” (and drop the word addict, junkie, crack head and other negative nouns associated with human beings who use drugs) a person’s self esteem might be reestablished and treatment might be more successful.

    Read what else the Drug Policy Alliance has to say on the importance of language here. And join the DPA in encouraging the Associated Press to “use humanizing language that doesn’t equate someone’s involvement with drugs or the criminal justice system as the sum of their identity.”