“Zombies” and Rotting Flesh: The Media Just Loves Halloween-y Depictions of People Who Use Drugs

    Zombies are apparently not just for Halloween—they pervade media descriptions of people who use drugs.

    An October New York Times article, for example, titled “Life on the Dirtiest Block in San Francisco,” portrayed homeless people as “bodies” inhabiting a “land of the living dead.”

    Across the Atlantic, UK newsrooms also sound the monster alarms. One outlet reported this week on an influx of the ‘zombie’ drug Spice,” a synthetic cannabinoid often called K2, in Wrexham, a large town in northern Wales.

    After cops cracked down on people allegedly selling the drug, a judge said of people using Spice: “It’s not just discomforting for ordinary people, it’s also very, very frightening to see people in this state, effectively as zombies, in the middle of the town center.” He added that his perception was informed by press reports and TV broadcasts depicting intoxicated Spice users. This demonstrates how media language choices can directly impact the the legal system.

    You can be sure that US lawmakers and media have also frequently demonized people who use K2.

    Back in Britain, another “zombie drug” lurks. Desomorphine, a derivative of morphine also popular in Russia and Ukraine, is produced by heating up over-the-counter drugs. It goes by the street name “krokodil” because of the “scaly and rotten” skin that forms around the drug’s injection site. A Metro article breathlessly describes “users with their bodies rotting while they’re still alive.” 

    Media outlets are not the only ones who use such horror-movie depictions of people who use drugs. People struggling with addiction—and those who treat them—sometimes do too. In the Trump Administration’s new opioid campaign video, for example, a recovery coach refers to a woman with addiction as “spiritually void.” The woman herself, as she’s going through withdrawal, says  “I feel like I’m coming back from the dead.”

    People are, of course, entitled to describe their own experiences as they understand it. At the same time, the conceptual framework and material resources (or lack of them) that we inherit in an anti-drug society strongly influence how we encounter and reflect on ourselves.

    Language that cements people who use drugs as less than human upholds practices like tearing away their children, locking them in cages and killing them. The very humanity of people who use drugs is at stake when public discourse conflates them with monsters. 

    Photo via PYMNTS.com

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