A Really Lame Anti-Drug Campaign
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A Really Lame Anti-Drug Campaign


Man, do I hate that new anti-drug Faces of Drug Arrests campaign going around. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a campaign sponsored by Rehabs.com that aims to startle society into recognizing the devastating effects of drug addiction by chronicling the devolving physical appearances of people presumably on drugs. The images are mug shots of those who’ve been arrested for drug-related offenses, starting with that person’s first arrest and then on through the years. “A sobering depiction of REAL individuals,” says the website, “who have fallen victim to the temptation of drug use—in this case, likely Methamphetamine use—whose devastating effects are all too apparent.”

This App Has Glitches

It’s like Shark Week, except meth. The REAL individuals go from young and healthy-looking to decidedly not: worn out and sick, with facial lesions and questionable hair choices. Unattractive.

“If you have ever wondered what YOU would look after being addicted to Methamphetamines,” The website tempts, “check out our Your Face on Meth App!”

The problem? It’s just not true. I mean, yes, it’s true that these people’s appearance have changed, but you can’t necessarily blame it on drugs. In a recent op-ed in criticism of the campaign, Dr. Keith Ablow articulates why “Faces of Drugs” may not face the real truth about drug abuse. He writes:

Most of the addicts I treat for cocaine dependence and oxycodone dependence and marijuana dependence and alcohol dependence don’t look anything like the folks in these mug shots. They look like athletes, attorneys, doctors, construction workers and even models—because they are. Their marriages and careers have started unraveling while their faces look pretty darn good. And most of them have never been arrested and never will be.

In other words, more often than not, you can’t tell a drug addict or alcoholic by looking at him (or her). At least, not in the physician’s experience.  Not in mine, either.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

I’ve met addicts counting days who, by outwardly appearances, looked just like anybody else. Many look even better than most people, in fact. I’ve seen men who drag themselves into recovery by their three-piece custom suit. Mesmerized by the gleaming $10,000 watch on their wringing hangs, I’ve listened to them describe the devastation their drinking or drug use has brought upon themselves and their family. Or women who are the perfect Sex and the City vision of highlights and that fabulous purse, crying off all their makeup as they recount the shame and powerlessness they feel when it comes to drinking or substances.

Sure, as Dr. Ablow says, no one wants to look like any of the “after” pictures in the “Faces of Drug Arrests” campaign.But for many addicts or alcoholics, physical decline is not the worst of it—it’s the psychological and spiritual impact of drug and alcohol abuse. Especially for people who can afford it to be the case, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse can be hidden under what money can buy. In fact, these manicured appearances can be a form of overcompensation. Appearances and saving face is precisely what keeps people from seeking treatment—so long as they still look good on the outside, they don’t think they need help.

Dr. Ablow continues:

For this reason, I worry a little bit that the “Faces of Drug Arrests” could actually have an unanticipated effect: It could convince people who look at the mug shots that since they aren’t anything like the addicts pictured, they may just be invulnerable to the negative effects of substances. But they are not.

Not Helping the Problem but Instead Creating Another

Bottom line: People can be addicts and still look good; And people who look bad aren’t necessarily drug addicts. I don’t presume that someone arrested on drug-related charges is necessarily a drug user, let alone an addict, but assuming they are, addicts are people, too—not just “cautionary tales” or objects for us to gawk at.

This brings me to what I find most troubling about this campaign: to me, it’s not very decent to mock another person’s appearance, whatever the presumed reason they look how they do. Mocking is what this campaign does and what we do when we share these images. I doubt these people gave the campaign permission for their photos. When you use people’s images without their permission —especially in a way that publicly links them to a stigmatized identity like “drug addict”—there can be practical as well as psychological ramifications. If Rehabs.com really cared about the lives of drug users, would they potentially harm them in this way?

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.