Be Kind to People Who Inject Drugs

Be Kind to People Who Inject Drugs

Think Twice before Posting Clickbait Images of Syringes

“Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”


The use of intentional language is something I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about. It’s mostly spurred by the above quote attributed to J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, though I’m positive the sentiment is older. As we have more frequent and more candid conversations about drug use and misuse, I ask that you consider the impact of the speech and images we use in those conversations.  Are we obligated to be thoughtful and sensitive toward others? I argue that if we allow our ability to relate to one another to slip through our fingers – what do we have left?

Today I want to discuss how we can be more inclusive towards people who inject drugs (“PWID”) as well as to those who previously used and now choose to actively abstain. As a part of the latter camp, I’ll give you a little insight into my personal story, so that you can hear from the mouth (or rather fingers) of one of your friends. I’m an SSDP alumna. I am actively involved on a national level. I also actively used heroin for four years while completing college and contributing to SSDP in significant ways. I didn’t start using heroin because of painkillers. I didn’t go through 12 steps. I haven’t used heroin in 1 year, 10 months, and 22 days. I am not an addict. I am not a junkie. 

Most people who run in drug policy reform circles have enough self-awareness not to use the term “junkie.” Why? It’s said to originate from several places, but all are from places of condemnation. Whether it came from us collecting junk to turn in for change or the perceived “junk” we’re shooting into our veins, the connotation is not a positive one.

Let’s move along. The more controversial of the statements above is that I’m not an addict. As someone who rejects the brain disease model of addiction, I do not identify as an addict. Not because I condemn the idea of having a brain disease, but because that’s not what’s happening in my body. People do not share a universal experience of dealing with problematic drug use. For me, every day is not a struggle. Every day is not a choice. For the most part, after 4 years of abusing my body and the drugs I was injecting into it, the only thing that makes the day “a choice” is a trigger, such as a photo of injection drug use. Addressing the use of “syringe porn” as clickbait to promote events or articles related to harm reduction and heroin use is what drove me to write about my personal experience

I implore you to critically think about what you’re conveying each time you post an article with a pile of used syringes as the cover photo. Who might be viewing this? How could it impact them? What about a spoon full of heroin and a flame?  For people who inject drugs this can evoke feelings of the last used syringe they encountered, which could likely be the last time we shot up. The feelings associated with a used syringe are those of warmth or satisfaction from the drug, or extreme pain and annoyance from a missed shot or bunk dope. Either one is not something someone who isn’t interested in continued use would like to be plagued with every time your harm reduction organization or Senator passes a bill or does something marginal (or at all). 

So what’s the deal? How do we combat this? First and foremost, it is not the responsibility of PWID to come up with better images that don’t trigger mental anguish. However, to provide some ideas, here is a list of replacement options:

Sometimes you’re not the creator of the content though, right? So, how do we combat THAT? Facebook gives you the option when posting an article to opt out of selecting the picture chosen by the author of the content. All I’m requesting here is that you click X. Remove the picture. If you want to go the extra mile, replace the pictures of syringes/heroin with a better picture that more accurately reflects your understanding of the depth of people who inject drugs. For extra credit, write the author and editor with a link to this post, and ask them to be more careful in the future.

I think it’s important for SSDP and our network to provide a place where people who previously injected drugs can feel comfortable. Right now, I don’t think we have. I admire and respect the people involved and the work we do, but I have to say – we can do better. We can care more for some of the people most impacted by the War on Drugs. We can be more inclusive. We can be more welcoming. We can do all of this with a single click.