Drug Addicts in the Media

Drug addicts appear to be victimized, glorified, villainized and ostracized all in one breath by the United States media outlets. In writing an article it is never advisable to admit that not much time was spent on researching the topic but in this case, I would have to disagree. Twenty minutes of research was done on the various ways United States media outlets portray addicts. Needless to say, the data obtained with minimal research was overwhelming in volume. Some outlets portrayed addicts as a diseased group that needs more love, compassion, and support, while others promoted stricter laws and harsher punishments for users. Many promoted the idea that jail was a failure—that addicts need therapy while still others believe that jail may be the first, last, and only option.

The only common thread throughout the media is that our current system is failing to either combat or help addicts, and that change is required. Due to the vast array of data, I will attempt to present the views of a few articles written by major outlets—particularly those that heavily contrast each other.

Unhappy girl

The belief that those addicted to drugs are suffering from a disease is an idea that has been growing in popularity for the last fifty years. Addicts are not weak-willed, immoral or evil; they are simply sick. This is an idea taken on by many popular media outlets such as National Public Radio (NPR) which reports that addicts are suffering from an incurable brain disease (Noe, 2016, p.2). If someone is suffering from a disease they immediately become more relatable, they are turned from a criminal into a victim almost overnight. This label, whether intentional or not, opens up more treatment options for the individual. If someone is diseased then their individual insurance policy may help pay for treatment. If however, they are simply immoral then that is a problem for our justice system and insurance will not pay for care.

An article published in the New York Post takes a very different approach towards the addicted community. The article by Kyle Smith asserts that addiction may not be a disease at all—that in actuality those struggling with addiction may have suffered some severe trauma in their lives, specifically during their childhood, which led them into addiction. The author asserts that the addict’s abuse of drugs and alcohol is more of a coping mechanism than anything else (Smith, 2015, p.2). The article in the Post also argues that the addicted community are not sick but simply have a very nasty habit. It seems to be a debate on terminology and labeling. Should addicts be labeled as a diseased population in need of help or as a broken and abused population in need of help? The only common thread appears to be the desired solution; a call for immediate treatment and not punishment—both articles make this very clear. Both articles assert that this community needs help and not punishment if they are ever going to recover.


Another major news outlet, The Washington Postsays more or less the same thing with the focus of the article being on the huge burden the addicted community has put on our prisons and jails. The article states that of the 2.3 million inmates in the United States nearly 65% fit the criteria of having a substance abuse disorder (Sack, 2014, p.3). With these staggering numbers, the author is able to demonstrate the huge financial burden addicts are on taxpayers with most of our prisons and jails being funded through state and federal taxes. The call is once more for action and treatment options, using evidence to support the ineffectiveness of punishing addiction out of someone and the belief that treatment is the only option for the majority of addicts.

The media does not appear to have an interest in analyzing addicts and their level of morality—it seems to have made up its mind on that point. The media focus is on the way in which this ever-growing population of addicts in our country should be handled and how they should be labeled.

Even the New York Times jumps in taking a similar stance on addiction, punishment, and treatment but rather than dismiss the idea of jail altogether, the article promotes the need for treatment in jail to reduce recidivism rates (Quinones, 2017). The author cites studies done in Kentucky jails where the opiate epidemic specifically is particularly bad. It would appear that through empowerment, encouragement, and treatment the addicted inmates do better and behave better while in prison and are less likely to return after their release.

To generalize the media portrayal of addiction in one article, let alone one book is simply not possible. The simplest applicable generalization that applies is as follows: Addiction sells newspapers and it makes headlines. Hundreds of thousands of men and women are dying every year as a result, whether it be directly or indirectly. Addiction has infiltrated every corner of our society and the media does a good job at publicizing this fact and will continue to do so until the United States gets a firm grasp on the issue.


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Certified Addiction Counselor and staff member at Narconon Colorado