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Words Matter: Changing the Language of Addiction

Language matters. How we talk about substance use and overdose can impact how we think of and treat other people. An individual should not be defined by substance use disorder, but by their whole being for example, are they kind? What are their hobbies? Are they a loving family member? We must speak, write and think in a way that acknowledges the human being first, rather than their condition or disease.

Tips for Changing Your Language

  1. People-first language. Always use person-first language, which means referring to a person before describing his or her behavior or condition. This is important because it acknowledges that a person’s condition, illness or behavior is not what someone is all about. We can say “person with a cocaine-use disorder” instead of “cocaine user” or “addict.” A person might have an addiction, but this does not make him or her “an addict.”
  2. Use language that reflects the medical nature of substance use disorders. Many things could be involved with drug addiction, ranging from personal to social, environmental and political influences. We should avoid terms that suggest morals or personality is associated with substance use. rather than a medical issue. We can say “addictive disease” and “substance use disorder” instead of “abuser” or “junkie.”
  3. Use language that promotes recovery. This means people, including healthcare professionals, should use positive language that supports recovery and respects the person’s independence. When talking about treatment and recovery, we should say “opted not to” and “not in agreement with the treatment plan” instead of “unmotivated” or “non-compliant.”
  4. Avoid slang and idioms. Slang terms and idioms feel negative and have some judgment attached to them. While slang and idioms are rarely used in professional literature, they are also important to avoid when speaking to other colleagues or healthcare professionals. We can use the words “positive” or “negative” when referring to drug tests, instead of “dirty” or “clean.”
  5. Focus on treatment. Treatment focuses on restoring a person’s ability to lead a meaningful life, be productive, and stay alive. Success is often viewed as “getting clean,” meaning staying away from any drug use, illegal or not. Many recovery services require individuals to quit using drugs without any medical assistance. This could be dangerous. Many studies show that individuals with medication-assisted treatment plans are more likely to be successful in recovery and less likely to overdose than other kinds of treatment services.
Say this:Instead of this:
Person who uses drugsDrug user
Person with non-problematic drug useRecreational, casual, or experimental user
Person with drug dependence,


person with substance use disorder,

person with problematic drug use;

person who uses drugs (when use is not problematic)

Addict; drug/substance abuser; junkie;


dope head, pothead, smack head, crack head, etc.; druggie; stoner

Substance use disorder; problematic drug useDrug habit
Has a X use disorderAddicted to X
Abstinent; person who has stopped using drugsClean
Actively uses drugs; positive for substance use; positive drug screenDirty drug screen
Respond, program, address, manageFight, counter, combat drugs and other combatant language
Safe consumption facility or spaceFix rooms
Person in recovery; person in long-term recoveryFormer addict; reformed addict; ex-addict
Person who injects drugsInjecting drug user
Opioid substitution therapy;


medication as a treatment tool

Opioid replacement therapy;


Medication as a crutch

Person living with substance use disorderBattling/suffering from an addiction
Person arrested for drug violationDrug offender
Chooses not to at this pointNon-compliant/bombed out
Had a setbackRelapsed
Maintained recoveryStayed clean

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