Last week, I wrote about some of the AP Stylebook’s updated entries on drug use — primarily those related to marijuana and other hallucinogens. I admit I was a little lighthearted about it because, although you can overdose on marijuana, the chances of death from such an overdose are minuscule.
But there are serious drug problems out there requiring constant coverage. Journalists and their copyeditors should understand the subtleties of drug language to ensure the accuracy of reports about narcotics and addiction treatments.
Opiates vs. Opioids
An opiate is a nonsynthetic drug derived directly from the poppy plant. Aside from straight opium, the two most commonly used (and abused) opiates are
- morphine (brand names Duramorph and Roxanol)
- codeine (used in cough medicines)
Opioids are manufactured drugs that mimic the properties of opiates; they are wholly or partially synthetic. Heroin is semisynthetic and is generally considered an opioid. Some other semisynthetics (and brand names) you might come across in your work are
- hydrocodone (Vicodin, Hycodan, Lortab, Lorcet)
- hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- meperidine (Demerol)
- oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percoset)
- oxymorphone (Opana)
Fully synthetic opioids include
- fentanyl (Duragesic, Sublimaze, Actiq)
- methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
The AP recommends that when you’re referring to the overall class of drugs — as in the title of this post — opioid is the better choice.
The CDC reported in 2016 that 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and the problem has only gotten worse since. Patented in 1961, the drug naloxone is an emergency treatment that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose. Paramedics have carried and administered the treatment for decades; only in the last two years have some police forces — and police are usually the first responders to a drug overdose — begun carrying the treatment as well.
Editors should remember to use the generic naloxone to describe the emergency drug; the delivery systems of that drug go by a number of brand names, including Narcan, Evzio, Nalone, Prenoxad, and Narcotan.
The Language of Addiction
The AP reminds writers and editors that addiction is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and should be treated as such. Avoid using words like addict, user, and abuser that imply that the problem lies with the person and not the disease. Someone who views their addiction as a personal shortcoming instead of a treatable illness may be less likely to seek treatment, and blaming or punitive language may even bias clinicians.
Recent updates to the AP Stylebook offer further guidance.