The images those descriptions conjure up are of the dregs of humanity; wasters and parasites who are less than human, lying spaced out in derelict buildings with no hope and no future.
To be fair, it’s not an unreasonable impression, given that it is reinforced constantly by their portrayal on television and film and in newspapers and magazines.
But does that negative image add to the problem? Is perpetuating the view that these people are a threat to society actually making it harder to deal with the issue of drugs misuse in the first place?
That is the view of the Global Commission on Drug Policy which this week released a major report on the “World Drug Perception Problem” and the need to counter prejudices about people who use drugs.
It would be easy to write off such a report as the earnest ramblings of another well-intentioned quango but the membership of the Commission, which was set up in 2011, reads like a roll-call of some of the most important political and business figures of modern times, from former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to Sir Richard Branson, from former US secretary of state George Shultz to renowned intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa.
Among the Commission team, which also includes a dozen former presidents and prime ministers, is former deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg who helped present the report’s findings.
He said: “Current drug policies are all too often based on perceptions and passionate beliefs, not facts.
“Any drug use carries risks, but only a small number of people who use drugs go on to face addiction or dependency. Those who do develop problems need our help, not the threat of criminal punishment.”
One of the key recommendations of the report is that people in influential positions should promote the use of “non-stigmatising” language.
For instance, people who take drugs should not be described as “users”, “junkies” or “addicts” and terms such as “druggie” and “crackhead” should be phased out.
The Commission has drawn up a list of acceptable and non-acceptable terms for discussing drug use. While a “person who uses drugs” is on the “do” list, it advises against saying “drug user”.
A “person with non-problematic drug use” should be the alternative to calling someone a “recreational, casual or experimental user”, according to the report.
Describing people as having “drug dependence” or “problematic drug use” is appropriate but “pothead” and “stoner” are also among terms in the “don’t use” category.
The Commission calls on opinion leaders to “live up to their responsibility in shaping public opinions and perceptions on drugs”.
It says: “Media, religious leaders, intellectuals, celebrities and other influencers have the potential to be powerful allies in correcting misinformation surrounding drug use and reducing the stigma towards people who use drugs.
“In particular, the use of degrading and inappropriate language, such as ‘junkies’, ‘zombies’, and ‘fix rooms’, should be addressed and corrected.
“They must restrain from further propagating misinformed beliefs which can potentially result in disastrous situations for people who use drugs, their communities, and the most vulnerable parts of society.”
The report also argues that law enforcement agencies must stop “acts of harassment” against people who use drugs, such as “intimidation, unwarranted searches, unwarranted seizure of property and racial profiling”.
Jon Royle, chief executive of Bradford’s The Bridge Project, said he hoped the report would go some way towards raising awareness among both the public and policymakers about the plight of people who have become dependent on drugs.
“These people are not just ‘addicts’, they are sons, daughters, parents, brothers and sisters and whilst society continues to treat them like criminals and deny them the access to the same quality of treatment and care that we take for granted for other illnesses and conditions, they will continue to die unnecessarily,” he said.
“Drug-related deaths are at record levels in this country and these correlate to the savage cuts to treatment budgets which are an easy target for politicians during austerity.
“Nobody sets out in life to become addicted and if we can have more compassion and empathy towards people, which includes the type of language we use to describe them, they will be less afraid of being punished, shamed and shunned by society and more likely to come out of the shadows and ask for the help they need to make positive changes in their lives.
“Current policy and societal attitudes towards problematic drug use drives users away from the services and people that can help them and into the hands of the criminals who exploit them as part of the multi billion global industry of the illicit drug trade.”