Stigma kills drug users in Abbotsford and elsewhere

Every so often, there is a confluence of events in the world that illustrates an important message.  In this case, the message is simple:  societal stigma about drug use and drug users is deadly.  Changing our attitudes will save lives.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Two events happened in the last few days that illustrate the danger of societal stigma about drug users and, more importantly, drug policy based on that stigma that chooses to consider drug addiction a moral failure rather than a medical problem in need of treatment and intervention.  First, we learned that the tragic death of Glee actor, Cory Monteaith, was a result of a lethal mixture of heroin and alcohol that led to his death alone in his hotel room from an overdose.  And second, Abbotsford police issued a warning about a 39% increase in overdoses among injection drug users.  The culprit suspected to be responsible for the surge in overdose in Abbotsford is fentanyl, a potent opioid that is being passed off as heroin, but is much stronger.

Let's be clear - addiction affects the lives of millions of people, their friends, their families, their communities.  Many people know the pain of living with an addiction to drugs, including the drug alcohol, and many also know the pain of having a family member or friend become dependent on drugs. There is agreement among all reasonable people in the world, including people who are addicted to drugs, that addiction causes harm in people's lives.  If there were a quick fix for getting over being addicted to alcohol or drugs, everyone - from Stephen Harper to the man or woman on the street corner of Hastings and Main would be on board with that as a solution.  But, the fact is that solution is not available.  There is not yet an easy way to treat drug dependency.  Each day we're learning more about the causes of addiction, be they physical, genetic, or environmental, but the jury is still out.  For many, drugs mask painful experiences of poverty, neglect and abuse.

Cory Monteith frankly discussed his struggles with addiction since high school.  Now, we normally don't think of charming, put together actors being in the same category as the often haggard, impoverished people with addictions struggling in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver or in Abbotsford.  But, the fact remains that if a rich, good-looking, talented actor with all of the social supports available to him can't get the help he needs to battle addiction, it's quite unreasonable to expect a homeless person in Abbotsford to "just say no" to using drugs, with barely any social safety net to catch him and support him through that process.  In the end, obstacles to receiving practical treatment for addiction remain an insurmountable barrier regardless of one's social or economic status.  The fact that drug use is stigmatized stands as one major barrier to people seeking out treatment and the medical profession effectively treating people when they do show up.  Funding for addiction treatment remains paltry and inconsistent across Canada, largely based on the fact that many believe drug users are unworthy of the money required to fund treatment centres.

The medical profession describes addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a ‘chronic, relapsing brain disease” that changes the structure and functionality of the brain.   Despite this, many people won't accept addiction as being a physical disability.  The courts have recognized that addiction is a physical disability that is protected by the Charter and human rights codes across Canada.  Despite this, many believe that drug users aren't entitled to human rights protections.

I don't dwell too much on negative comments posted on the internet about media pieces we do at Pivot (or I might not get out of bed in the morning), but in this case anonymous public comments are illustrative of common stigmatizing reactions of the man or woman on the street.  Just today, we issued a press release about the BC Human Rights Tribunal accepting the human rights complaint of our clients in the challenge to Abbotsford's anti-harm reduction bylaw.  I spoke with CKNW radio this morning.  They posted the story on their website, including a place for comments.  Here is one of the tamer examples from the comments.

KellyS_2296: You cannot honestly be comparing a person who has Parkinson's, MS, paraplegia, to someone who purposefully injects illegal drugs into his/her body? Yes addiction is a bad thing, but it is also something that can be controlled, unlike Parkinson's MS or paraplegia...

Both the medical community and the legal community consider addiction a physical disability, comparable to Parkinson's, MS, and paraplegia.  If a person acquired diabetes from eating too much sugar and not getting enough exercise, should we deny them basic healthcare?  If a person became a paraplegic because they chose to speed in their car down the highway and got into an accident, does that choice somehow make them ineligible for healthcare?  The fact is, as a society, we don't make those distinctions for diseases other than addiction.

Many of our governments' policies and laws around drug use, from the criminalizing of drugs from cannabis to heroin, to the decisions made around funding of treatment and access to health care, are based in stigma around drug use.  For the people overdosing and dying from heroin tainted with fentanyl in Abbotsford - these are people's sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers - the decision by the City of Abbotsford to stand in the way of harm reduction services cost them their lives.  If Abbotsford had a supervised consumption site, like Insite, how many people would have lived to see another day and to - perhaps - be in a place where they might access detox and treatment and kick their addiction?  No one can say for certain, but as a fact, the trained staff at Insite have seen hundreds of serious overdoses without one fatality.  For Cory Monteith, the stigma around his use of drugs and addiction likely led him to choose to be alone to inject drugs.  Had someone been with him who had access to naloxone - an anti-overdose medication - he would likely have lived as well.

At Pivot, I will continue to raise legal challenges that advocate for the human rights of drug users and continue to challenge unjust laws, be they in Abbotsford, Ottawa or elsewhere.  The Charter or Human Rights Code are not reserved for protecting the rights of those groups we like and supporting the ideas we agree with, but exactly the opposite.  Those documents are in place, in fact, to protect the stigmatized and those who are marginalized in our society.

The stories of the deaths of people like Cory Monteith and the marginalized injection drug users who overdosed in Abbotsford are sad.  But, there is no moral failing in what these people did.  They are caught in a trap.  As compassionate people, we should do what we can to help them, not further harm them through stigma and by denying them healthcare measures that can save their lives.  Regardless of their drug use, people who use those drugs are members of society.  They have value and human rights and are entitled to support not derision. 

Follow Scott Bernstein on Twitter:  @scott_bern