The New York City Health Department’s “Let’s Talk Fentanyl” campaign made headlines for placing posters that promoted illegal drug use: “Don’t be ashamed you are using, be empowered that you are using safely.” Amid an unprecedented overdose crisis, public-health officials should acknowledge the impossibility of “using safely.” Treatment with the goal of full recovery is the way to prevent overdoses.
The posters’ message is right in one respect: Users shouldn’t be shamed for having a substance-use disorder. Negative perceptions of addiction too often discourage people from seeking help and result in preventable deaths. But asserting that drugs empower users desensitizes the public to the real harms of drug use. Lower risk perceptions will result in more casual experimentation. The desensitization and normalization of drug use will inevitably result in more overdoses.