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Visualising “junkies” and “meth heads” – a visual analysis of the persistent negative reputation of heroin and meth users

Lisa Scheibe (Institute for Criminology, Universitat Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany)

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Article publication date: 6 March 2017




The purpose of this paper is to explore the persistent negative reputation of two particular types of drug users, the so-called heroin junkie and the meth head. The visual portrayal of both kinds of users in the media has been consistent in the last decades. Inspired by films and anti-drug campaigns, stereotypical ideas about heroin and meth users dominate the visual portrayals. Existing research has already shown that this standardised picture is not applicable uniformly. Nevertheless, the important role of the visual element for constituting beliefs about drug use and users is lacking in the current drug research. Therefore, this work focusses on the visual element of the drug discourse.


On the basis of the British movie Trainspotting, and the two American campaigns Faces of Meth and Montana Meth Project the visual representation of heroin and meth users is discussed. With the help of a visual discourse analysis this research discloses the particularities of every image.


The current visual portrayal of heroin and meth users stigmatises them as deviant and unhealthy. This single-sided perspective labels all users, without acknowledging different patterns of use. Counterexamples obtained through existing research do not support this uniformly applied stereotypical representation. The persistent negative reputation mediates inaccurate knowledge about drug use, with harmful consequences for the users, and harm-reduction work.


Drug research has not been focussing enough on the visual element of the drug discourse. This research intends to close the existing gap and emphasise the possible harmful consequences produced by such visuality.



Scheibe, L. (2017), "Visualising “junkies” and “meth heads” – a visual analysis of the persistent negative reputation of heroin and meth users", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 17 No. 1, pp. 40-49.



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