The double standard between alcohol and drugs reveals the harmful nature of stigma

I describe my childhood as bipolar. I was raised in a very abusive alcoholic home, with all the trimmings. We also lived in a beautiful home with a cottage just outside Bobcaygeon. My dad is a functioning alcoholic. He was an engineer, and we lived in the Greater Toronto Area until I was attacked while walking home in elementary school. We moved to Bolton within two months, and then my parents divorced in the next four years. I was 14. They asked who I wanted to live with, and I said neither! They accepted my answer and off I went at 14. The government paid my rent as long as I went to school, and my adult life began.

I was first introduced to drugs at 12. My sister and her boyfriend would have parties and invite me over to get me out of the house. My sister is six and a half years older than me, and all the partygoers were 19 or older. I will leave the rest to your imagination. That part of my life was purely survival now that I look back. I didn’t even know who I was as a person back then. I would just try to fit in. At that time (1970s), pot was illegal. I noticed that the folks who sold it received a lot of attention. I started selling pot at first; then my inventory grew. I sold acid, bennies, and pot. Oh, and I loved to drink as well.

I went through different addictions at different times in my life, so challenges were different depending on the decade. I quickly learned that you could not be honest with your friends about what you did. If I shared that I took multiple bennies daily, I would be shunned. If I drank everyday, no one cared! It’s very hard to get close to anyone and build a network of support when you’re fearful of being shunned; also, looking back at those years now, we had no support or harm reduction (except for condoms).

Back then, the stigma was pronounced. Even as a young kid, parents wouldn’t let their kids play with me because they heard some of what went on in my family home. I felt like a bad kid. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time alone.

As an outreach worker now, you can watch the judgement through actions on a daily basis. We see folks cross the street to avoid someone who may look homeless. You will see women clutch their purses tighter, and the worst is watching people walk by someone who is laying face down on the sidewalk. Even alcoholics stigmatize folks who use drugs, because alcohol is accepted in our society.

The current overdose crisis Canada is suffering through is completely unbelievable! I personally know of 15 people who have lost their lives since January. It’s very scary and it’s creating a sense of doom, then add COVID-19 to the mix! There’s no time to really grieve someone as you hear of someone else who lost their life due to bad drug policies. If this slows down and folks have a chance to breathe, what’s going to happen when they start to process everything?

“Even alcoholics stigmatize folks who use drugs, because alcohol is accepted in our society.”

The majority of deaths are due to our bad drug policies. What would happen if folks who drank started dying because of the beer they drank? We also have many folks living rough, no nutrition, sleeping outside, dealing with being jumped—always in survival mode as those who have the power to change things don’t seem to care.

For the folks living in it, one person described it as the apocalypse! I personally feel it’s extremely important to be there for folks who need or want to talk. I have heard unspeakable things. Imagine if they had absolutely no one to speak to or trust. I personally feel privileged to be one of the people there to listen. I am fortunate to be able to go to the safety of my home and the warmth of my bed for comfort. It’s amazing what a locked door can do for a person.

I can say with confidence that we need to change the laws on drugs. The war on drugs has only created jobs for cops and gangs and filled our courts and jails with petty crimes. Making drugs legal would stop toxic drugs from hitting the streets, which in turn would alleviate the ridiculous amount of death. Back in prohibition days for alcohol, folks were dying from homemade hooch. I wonder how many places in Canada serve alcohol now?

“The war on drugs has only created jobs for cops and gangs and filled our courts and jails with petty crimes.”

Because drugs are illegal, people are forced to go to unsafe places and not question what they’re given as you know they have a weapon on them. If you’re dope sick and just spent your money on crap, now what? Legally regulated drugs provided in a public health context would take the risk right out of the mix—risk of being stuck in a trap house or robbed on the way out, risk of dying from a toxic supply.

As an outreach worker, I know that decriminalization (of drugs) is also important. It would make it easier to connect with folks who are asking for help, and hand them our harm reduction supplies. This would be literally life-saving. Now, they hide in places that are totally unsafe like a trap house, underground garages, or they use alone because of the shame and stigma associated with drug use. Now that alcohol is legal, I don’t see much shame associated with it. The shame that folks feel daily is part of who they are; wouldn’t it be great to alleviate that for folks?

Along with these policy changes, education is needed so our community can understand what addiction is and what this life really looks like. Not stuff out of a book, or carefully planned language. Real education is needed! We have some absolutely wonderful people living this nightmare who are treated like crap because of the trauma they suffered from. So now they suffer shame, not only from their trauma, but also from their drug of choice to forget about their trauma. I wonder if there’s anyone out there who drinks because of some trauma they suffered? Of course there are, there are millions; but people don’t cross the street because they see you coming. We need to wake up, we are all human and need to be treated and given opportunities like others. No one is better than someone else! Our society created this horrible situation; we can change it back.

I hope for a better world. My tomorrow would have a safe place for everyone to live who wanted it. Services of any kind would be available for anyone who needed them, and individual incomes would allow everyone to live comfortably. Lastly, if everyone accepted people for who they were, instead of judging, we would live in a much happier place. When we judge, we are always judging against ourselves—tiring!

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