Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.

girl in recovery sitting in chair

When we think of addicts, we seldom associate the word discrimination. Yet, there is clearly an undeniable association between discrimination and addiction. Although scientific research has proven that addiction is a chronic medical condition and not an issue of moral integrity; there remains a global perspective that an addict is morally weak or compromised.


The stigma and acts of discrimination occur throughout our society. The stigma is most commonly associated with false information and impressions about addicts. Although issues of addiction impact all cultures, races, genders, ages, and economic categories; there remains an overall impression of the makeup of an addict. Addicts are…

While addiction is prevalent throughout our society, there remains a perception of those who suffer from addiction. The common impression is that they are of a specific income level, and often, of specific racial backgrounds. The profiling of addicts is not an uncommon theme throughout our society. Addicts are not only profiled by race and economic standing, but they are also profiled based on gender, age, employment or lack therein, and the communities with which they reside. The profiling is so deeply ingrained into the minds of our society that images associated with addiction are gravely skewed. Rarely, would we ever consider a high profiled individual as having an addictive issue.

Argumentatively, while the initial use of a substance may occur through an individual’s personal choice; the sad truth is, addiction hijacks the brain’s neural pathways. Thus, the addiction begins to take hold of an individual by the restructuring areas of the brain that are responsible for pleasure, memory, attention, motivation and critical decision-making. Due to the brain’s plasticity, the addictive substance restructures the brain’s neural circuits by reassigning meaning and value. As a consequence of the addiction, an addict’s brain begins to associate feeling “normal” with the substance.

As a result of the restructuring of the brain, an individual’s moral and ethical integrity may be compromised. It may be associated with
an individual making poor choices and decisions. It’s not to excuse behaviors, attitudes, perceptions, or criminal activity, rather it might explain why some individuals make poor choices and decisions.

We have all heard about the celebrities who have struggled with issues of substance abuse. As we know, the media flocks to these individuals like vultures seeking to devour their prey. We have also heard about the prevalence of drugs, addiction, and drug dealers in specific ethnic and economic communities. Whether purposeful, or not, there has been created a caricature of the typical drug user. If you were asked to describe an addict, what images does your mind conjure up? Does this individual fit within the norm perceptive of an addict? Does the individual fit into the typical media profile of an addict? Are they living in squalor? Are they the typical image portrayed in the movies and on television? Have they abandoned their personal responsibilities and their children? Do they meet a specific ethnic profile?

Sadly, the images that are often portrayed in the media are of specific cultures, races, genders and ages. The images are based on issues of classism and racism, but they continue to be fostered by miscommunication, misrepresentation and misinformation pertaining to the issues of addiction. The misinformation often portrays individuals living in squalor and having little regard for the safety of their children. Did you know that many addicts have children, and live in middle-class and higher middle-class neighborhoods? Did you further know that addiction crosses all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers? If anything on this planet could be called racially inclusive, it would be that of addiction. Addiction knows no allies, nor does it have a friend. Addiction is blind to race, age, gender, and class.


The American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and other laws have been designed to protect against discrimination. However, those with addiction often fall through the cracks of these laws. An individual struggling with a substance abuse disorder is protected under the law. Also, an individual with a known history of addiction is also protected under the law.


While it is illegal under federal, state, and city law to discriminate against someone with a substance use disorder; the discrimination against individuals with addictions continues. Unlike someone with an obvious physical disability; those who suffer from substance abuse are less likely to garnish sympathy or receive compassion. Moreover, they are more likely to receive unfair treatment from employers, the judicial and legal system, as well as the therapeutic and social service communities. It is illegal for an employer or anyone else to discriminate against an individual who is currently receiving treatment or has received treatment for addiction. Yet, discrimination does and continues to occur, and it is not always through blatant acts.


Be aware of the way with which you choose to communicate about drugs and addicts. The language with which we choose to use can be humiliating and dehumanizing to individuals suffering from addiction. Please remember that if you choose to call someone a “tweaker,” “crackhead,” “dopehead,” or “coke whore,” you are in essence discriminating against an individual suffering from a physiological and psychological condition.


In regards to the general public, we have an uphill battle to fight when changing the minds and perspectives on addicts and addiction. Likewise, we must help guide and reorient the minds of those who control the media. The media must become more sympathetic and compassionate in regards to addicts and addiction. As with any form of discrimination, we must no longer tolerate it. Such acts of discrimination are no different than discriminating against an individual for being a particular race, gender, social class or age.

Drugs and addiction impact all classes, genders, ages, and races. The issue of addiction has spread like wildfire and it is affecting every corner of this globe. We must advocate for those suffering from this egregious disease and bring awareness to those who are ill-informed. While there has been clear and ample evidence to show that addiction alters the mind and body; the misinformation continues to disparage this knowledge. Furthermore, if the mind is altered, then we also know that the psychological makeup of an individual has been altered as well. Thus, the issue of an addiction is a comorbid issue which must be addressed by a team of practitioners. We desperately need for the medical and psychological communities to begin working from a collaborative approach of treatment.

If addicts are to overcome the stigma of addiction, professionals and nonprofessionals must educate the public. The ideas of the old guard who swore that addiction was an issue of moral weakness and integrity; must be laid to rest. An individual’s history of addiction should have no bearing on an individual’s ability to obtain or maintain a job. We know that the discrimination is not limited to the workplace. We have all heard about a child not being returned to the custody of their parental caregiver based on a past addiction. We have all heard about an individual being denied access to particular treatments because of a past issue with narcotics. The past issues of an individual should have no bearing on an individual’s ability to live a healthy and productive life. We must also remember that addiction is not limited to substances, rather addiction is prevalent throughout our technological society.

The stigma associated with addiction is often experienced when the addict is most vulnerable and searching for help.

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