It’s time we rethink how we treat people who use drugs

By Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor with the Blood Ties Four Directions Centre in Whitehorse, YT. He can be reached at [email protected] or 867-332-8268

rethink how we treat people who use drugs rethink how we treat people who use drugs

The death toll is approaching 20,000 since the most recent overdose crisis began in 2016. In our small territory, 37 people have died of an opioid overdose during this time, and the numbers have been increasing dramatically since COVID-19 began. Countless others are living with injury and trauma caused by overdoses. All of these injuries and deaths are entirely preventable when people who use drugs have access to harm reduction tools and knowledge.

What is harm reduction? It is an action someone takes to minimize the harmful effects of an activity. Wearing a bike helmet or a seat belt are common everyday examples we are all familiar with. For people who use drugs, harm reduction can mean ensuring they always have new, sterile equipment, a naloxone kit (to reverse opioid overdoses), access to treatment when they are ready, and someone to talk to for mental and physical supports.

READ MORE: What is harm reduction and how does it help?

Denying people harm reduction will not reduce drug use, but it will increase rates of overdose, HIV, and Hepatitis C, as well as increase costs to the health care system related to emergency room visits and treatment of chronic diseases. Conversely, local programs like take-home naloxone, drug testing, and mobile harm reduction are meeting people where they are at to help keep them safe.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that criminalizes drug use and forces us to talk about harm reduction only in ‘designated areas’ using hushed tones. We avoid honest but difficult conversations about drug use, even when most of us care deeply about someone who uses drugs or have had our own struggles with addiction.

People who use drugs worry about being shamed, stigmatized, and even criminalized by friends, family, service providers and the general public. It is when people are unwilling to talk about or admit their own drug use due to shame and stigma that the real harms occur. Many end up using alone, significantly increasing their risk of death from an overdose. Others may share equipment putting them at risk of HIV or Hepatitis C because they feel too ashamed to access a needle-exchange service. Finally, people must be able to be honest about their drug use if they want to access treatment services.

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As a response to the ineffective and dangerous war on drugs and the social shaming of people who use drugs, International Support Don’t Punish Day, June 26, was launched in 2013. All over the world there are events calling for changes in drug policy to allow people access to a regulated drug supply, and for changes in the way society deals with drug use. Specifically, Support Don’t Punish advocates for a social shift away from punishing people who use drugs towards a model where they are supported through open and barrier free access to health, harm reduction and treatment.

“People must be able to be honest about their drug use if they want to access treatment services.”

As an individual, here are five things you can do to offer support to people who use drugs:

  1. Be open, warm, curious, and non-judgemental when you talk to someone about using drugs. Make sure that you are really listening instead of simply offering advice the person has likely heard many times before.
  2. Educate yourself on harm reduction and treatment services available in your community that you can share with others.
  3. Before blaming someone for their drug use, take some time to consider the factors in that person’s life that may be contributing to addiction. For example, unresolved trauma or chronic pain often underlies substance use.
  4. Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues about the harms caused by the war on drugs and why it is important to support harm reduction programs and changes to drug policy. You could even write to your MP or MLA to let them know how you feel.
  5. Get a free take-home naloxone kit at any of over a dozen locations throughout the Yukon. Keep it on you when you are out in public or show someone who uses drugs how to use it and then give it to them. Naloxone and training are available at many locations including pharmacies, community health centres, territorial hospitals, the Kwanlin Dün Health Centre, Blood Ties, the Outreach Van, and Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services.

International Support Don’t Punish Day gives us an opportunity to tell people who use drugs that they are cared for and not forgotten. When people are properly supported, many of the harms associated with drug use can be eliminated.

About Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

Advocating for public health- and human rights-based drug policies grounded in evidence, social justice, and compassion. www.drugpolicy.ca