Sheila Vakharia: Are You Spreading This Stigma?

April 26 - Sarah Ashlock

FIRST THOUGHT: The War on Drugs

I’ve noticed a universally accepted trend, and I’m over it. We often think of drug users as “others,” meaning, they aren’t like “us.” People who use drugs are from all walks of life, and their consumption ranges from casual to severe. As cannabis use increases in legality across the states, this anti-drug mindset must change.

Social scientist and writer Brenè Brown shares the benefits of choosing empathy over sympathy. Before you sit on your high horse during the next episode of Intervention, try these empathetic methods instead: Take on the drug user’s perspective, check your judgment at the door, recognize what that person appears to be feeling, and connect with them about it.


So, you’ve heard of “the war on drugs,” but what is it, exactly? Listen, I don’t have time to go through the century to describe it, but it’s essentially a government-led initiative to halt illegal drug use and distribution. Historically, drug enforcement and sentencing has been racially driven, from early Chinese immigrants to southern Black men. Every single year, the United States spends $47 billion to combat drugs in the country. It’s a complex issue, especially considering the current opioid crisis. It ain’t all Cheech and Chong.

WOMAN TO WATCH: Sheila Vakharia, Policy Manager of the Office of Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance

If you feel like a fish out of water when it comes to how we combat drug use while also not racially profiling, girl, it’s OK. That’s what the experts like Sheila Vakharia are here for. She’s part of a growing approach to addiction and drug use that’s called harm reduction. Sheila has spent her life advocating for accurate, evidence-based education on drug-related injuries and illnesses.

For many, there isn’t much info out there aside from the 12 steps that can help someone suffering from addiction. Sheila was working as a social worker and saw first-hand the lack of information and the stigma associated with drug use. Her day-to-day work led her to attend a doctoral program in social welfare.

Now, Sheila is the policy manager for the Office of Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance. The Drug Policy Alliance is responsible for state campaigns to legalize medical marijuana. The organization has also been instrumental in advocating for drug treatment rather than incarceration of those who use drugs.

Sheila and her colleagues work to engage researchers in changing drug policies through more accessible studies, forums on these complex issues and publicizing the legitimate research being done in the area of drug use and harm reduction.

In addition to drug use being tied to racism, Sheila has also come out to set the record straight about women who take drugs. In response to the media sharing that brain scans reveal women who use drugs feel less maternal instincts, Sheila reminds readers to be wary of hysteria-driven reports. In this case, she says the reporting is flat-out incorrect.

It's daunting to be just one woman trying to speak above a 24/7 news cycle. Thankfully, men and women of every ethnicity and every class have the ability to come together and make change happen, one precise research study at a time. If you see misinformation spread, take a cue from Sheila do your part by commenting with the #facts.


British sociologist Harriet Martineau said:

"Women, like men, must be educated with a view to action, or their studies cannot be called education."

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