Talking prescription heroin in the suburbs

I lived the first 21 years of my life in Maple Ridge, an hour east of Vancouver.

The first person I ever met with a heroin addiction lived in Maple Ridge.
The first person I knew who went to prison for a drug offence was arrested in Maple Ridge.
The first person I knew who was living with HIV was diagnosed in Maple Ridge.
The first person I ever knew who suffered a fatal overdose died in Maple Ridge.

Last week, a teacher in Maple Ridge invited Pivot send someone to his community to facilitate a public forum on Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT). I decided to accept the offer, but as soon as I did, I became very nervous that I would be booed out the door. Opiate addiction is a real issue facing residents of Maple Ridge, but, like the absurd claim by the mayor of Sochi that there are no gay people in his town, I was not sure people in my hometown would be ready to acknowledge that reality. Drug dependence is often treated as a geographic problem that affects low-income urban communities like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Even people who are ready to accept that harm reduction programs serve an important public health function are not necessarily prepared to accept that those programs belong in their neighbourhoods.

I arrived at the Riverside Centre in Maple Ridge and was warmly greeted by Dale Hardy, the teacher who had set up the event. Dale introduced me to the principal and vice-principal at his school and some of his current and former students.  Eventually, 30 people made their way into the gymnasium. Some of my assumptions about Maple Ridge’s readiness to grapple with the idea of prescription heroin were immediately challenged. Dale amended my bio to include the Maple Ridge high school I graduated from 20 years ago, and the audience seemed genuinely appreciative that I had decided to come back to town after all these years to talk about this particular issue.

We started by watching the Danish documentary, “Anyone for Coffee and Heroin,” which follows clients and staff at Denmark's Poppy Clinic, a facility that runs a heroin-assisted treatment program, during the first nine months of operation. We then moved into the question and answer component of the forum. While HAT was new to many people in the audience, the harms caused by the criminalization of drug use and the need for a more evidence-based approach to treating addiction was clearly understood. People shared stories about the struggles of family members and friends and expressed their outrage that the federal government was denying people access to a proven medical treatment and using outmoded ideology as the justification.  

A few audience members asked whether I knew of any opportunities to get involved with Downtown Eastside organizations working on harm reduction issues. I began to list off some suggestions, and then stopped myself. Instead, I asked where people in Maple Ridge could access harm reduction supplies. Nobody seemed to know the answer. I suggested that getting involved in supporting harm reduction in their home community was the most important way they could get involved.  

The sample size was too small and self-selected to say that residents of Maple Ridge are ready to consider a supervised injection site or HAT program in their town. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary.  However, I left the forum with a sense that there are certainly community champions with the potential to lead the municipality toward a compassionate and evidence-based approach to addressing addiction.

Later that evening I called my sister in Kenora, (population: 15,806). My brother-in-law answered the phone and we ended up talking about the event in Maple Ridge. He told me that he recently read in the Kenora Daily Miner and News that approximately 80 syringes are collected for disposal every three days in his town. “I never would have imagined that it was such as issue in Kenora,” he said.

Addiction is not a Downtown Eastside issue.  It is a health and human rights issue. It is an issue that affects people, families, and communities across the country. The more open communities are to engaging in meaningful discussion about the options available to reduce the harms associated with addiction, the closer we will be to resolving the crisis once and for all.