So far, the battle to stop overdose deaths has involved the police, hospitals, treatment providers and educators.

The next round may require everyone else to take part, and it starts with the words that we use.

The strong negative language commonly used to describe people who are addicted to drugs reinforces a false image that it’s a problem of weak character or a lack of willpower. That stigma drives people to hide their addiction and prevents them from reaching out for help.

A report issued this week by the Task Force to Address the Opioid Crisis in the state makes a number of valuable recommendations that would prevent people from starting drug use and treating those who become addicted, all of which would require the state to spend resources.

A small change proposed in the report would cost very little to implement but could also have a big effect.

That is, taking stigmatizing language out of the statutes when possible and replace words like “addict” or “abuse” with terms that more accurately describe the condition. That might sound like political correctness run amok, but words matter. They not only reflect our understanding, they shape it.


Medical authorities from the American Medical Association to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health view addiction as a chronic disease similar to diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma. Addiction is “a primary disease of the brain circuits that affects emotions, memory, motivation and reward leading to biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors,” according to Dr. Vernon Gardner, an expert who worked with the task force.

According to the report, addiction is influenced by genetic factors, like untreated mental illness, as well as childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect or living with a parent who had a substance abuse disorder.

Another expert told the task force that addiction alters the brain, preventing individuals from exerting willpower. Treating people who become drug dependent as criminals has not been an effective way to reduce addiction. Neither has demanding that they quit “cold turkey” without any assistance from medication.

Nothing Maine has done has been able to slow the pace of overdose deaths, which have been coming at a rate of more than one a day for the last two years. Maybe by showing some sympathy for the people who have become addicted to opioids and understanding for the family members who are trying to save them, we could make a difference and save some lives.

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