Sober Saviorism Is Killing Drug Users

Like White saviorism, sober saviorism is based on coercion and control. It’s also inherently violent. How can we do better?

Nicole M. Luongo


Image credit: Author

Sober saviorism: The personal, cultural, and institutional projects that frame drug users as helpless victims to be rescued from themselves by non — drug using actors.

Drawing from “White saviorism,” the phenomenon of altruistic non — drug users guiding incompetent, unstable drug users from the margins to the mainstream in ways that are self — serving.

I have yet to see explicit comparisons made between White and sober saviorism despite their obvious parallels. For those not familiar, White saviors are those who feel good about “helping” racialized populations without critically reflecting on their complicity in race — based oppression. The term is derived from the poem “White Man’s Burden” by British novelist Rudyard Kipling, which was published in the late 19th century to encourage American conquest in the Philippines. Today, White saviorism manifests in several ways. Notable are transnational adoptions, wherein future parents believe they are “rescuing” impoverished children from their birth place, volunteer and mission trips by ill — equipped young people, many of which are flimsy veneers for religious colonialism, and social workers apprehending Indigenous children when their families don’t conform to rigid parameters of “responsibility ” imposed by Whiteness. It’s also a common film trope.

The White savior is not innocent, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of White supremacy.

As a Westerner, I have observed similar dynamics unfold between drug users and those who claim to care for us. Sober saviorism can look like the unwillingness to give money to panhandlers (who may or may not use drugs) because they’ll “waste” it or use to to “self — harm” via substances. The “enabling” myth — that is, the notion that loving drug users inhibits change — is also imbued with sober saviorism, as is the adjacent belief that harm — reduction encourages drug use and should be disallowed.

Sober saviors may mean well, but as with their White counter — parts (who more often than not are one and the same), sober saviorism…