McGill, News

‘Drug Addicts Are Human Beings’: Confronting the stigma surrounding addiction

On Jan. 23, the Institute for Liberal Studies and the McGill Political Science Students Association hosted “Drug Addicts Are Human Beings,” a talk to examine the negative impacts of the war on drugs and the ways in which drug addicts are dehumanized. The talk featured keynote speaker Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who lectures for various organizations, including the Federalist Society and the Institute for Humane Studies. Although not directly affiliated with McGill, the Institute for Liberal Studies hosts talks about the ideas of liberty and freedom on for a wide range of topics.

Burrus began his talk with a question to challenge the audience’s perceptions of drug users. 

“The fundamental question at the heart of the drug war is, ‘Why do alcoholics get treatment and heroin users get cages’?” Burrus said. “Why would we have to dehumanize someone so much because of the specific drug they use [….] The drug war is evil and we must end it.”

According to Burrus, the three main prongs of the war on drugs are perceptions of the drug, perceptions of the drug user, and dehumanization of the drug user. Burrus described each of these claims and argued that the US American federal government has manipulated public perceptions of certain drugs in order to target marginalized and racialized groups.

Burrus referenced a 2012 incident in which a Florida man ate part of a homeless man’s face to show how police will lie about drugs to create false panic in the population. He explained how common drug abuse is by providing statistics on alcoholism. 

“All drugs are pretty much the same,” Burrus said. “20 per cent of the drug users are [chronic users]. 20 per cent of drinkers are alcoholics, but we do not punish the 80 per cent because of the 20 per cent. The same is true of heroin.”

Burrus encouraged everyone to be empathetic toward drug users.

“We need to give a human face to those who need help, not a jail cell,” Burrus said “We can change if we want to, [but we need to] see drug users as human beings.”

After Burrus’ talk, several students brought up how they are working to improve the campus culture around drugs. One student told the audience that there is actually a safe injection site at Concordia University, which allows people to use drugs in a safer setting. Furthermore, the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy is currently trying to create a similar program at McGill.

Jeanne Cholot, a Concordia art history student, learned about the stigma around drug users and was compelled to share her knowledge.

“I think it was really honest,” Cholot said “[Burrus] was very satirically revealing blunt information that makes you understand how messed up it is. It was pretty entertaining. I’ve done my own research [about drugs and drug users], but I engaged with the talk.”

Sabine El-Chidiac, Educational Program Manager for the Institute for Liberal Studies, was excited to be back at McGill.

“[The Institute for Liberal Studies] comes to McGill at least once or twice a year,” El-Chidiac said. “We like [coming here]. Student groups will ask us to bring people [sometimes]. McGill students are great, they are always very engaged and have good questions.”

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