Drugs, Necessary Facts, and Decriminalization

at council, april 2018

I’m happy to be here this morning to speak to the work that’s been done by people w/ lived experience as a part of the mental health & addictions task force these last 4.5 years. Over that time, participation has increased, and that’s a really important point to recognize, because that in itself is an indication of how important anti-stigma work is.

btw, we got the grants! which funded the Megaphone Speakers’ Bureau. check it out

It’s significant that the City has recognized as a simple fact that people with mental illness or people who use drugs have a role to play in the development of the public policy that will meaningfully address and end this crisis – in terms, that is, of real-world change, and not just more words that sound nice.

If we ever hope to have a rational discussion about drugs in our society, this is a necessary step towards that goal – because it is a rare lawmaker who can have a rational discussion with a criminal.

So people have stepped up, because they’ve taken strength from that, and that’s an important thing too. It’s also indicative of the political work that is possible when we can thoughtfully move past stigma – because when we are isolated, can’t step forward publicly to address the issues that affect our lives. And so that’s how stigma prevents us from participating in creating the change we need. We remain silent, and alone.

These grant recommendations and this report are therefore key to ending what’s happening in our lives, and all around us, this crisis of mass poisoning and policy. This is about increasing control over one’s life, one’s agency over the forces that define our existence.

So you don’t step forward to seek help if you’re using drugs, because you fear criminalization, or you can’t access housing, because you are considered somehow problematic or challenging or hard-to-house.

You isolate yourself, as Colin described, because you start to believe that you’re not fit to be around people, so you avoid people – stops you from doing peer work, also known as having friends – who can save your life if you suffer an overdose. The opposite of addiction is connection, human connection, and that is why this matters. This is why the first principle of harm reduction is Don’t use alone. It’s about so much more than narcan, as you see.

When you’re very stigmatized, that social isolation is only going to increase: you can only become more alone, and more at risk. I was fortunate to have worked with Dr Tyndall this past year, and when I was thinking about where we are right now, I remembered something he said in December, while discussing his efforts to make safe drugs available to users. “There’s no clearer indication of the social stigma that illicit drug users suffer than criminalization,” he said on CBC. “Our society views drug users as people who should be locked away.”

Criminalization is institutionalized stigma. There’s no clearer way to put it. To be criminalized is to be thrust outside society. And as a drug user, whether you’re actually in jail or a jail of social making, the effect unfortunately is much the same. You’re outcast – whether in prison, or out homeless, cast from family or friends, or alone in a room.

It’s come to the point when people who use drugs have to remind people when they talk that they are also human and still alive. I do that all the time, including in conversations with people I have worked with for years.

The importance of these grants is to push this forward, to have this hard conversation. To speak on equal terms: this is the dynamic that compels a recognition of shared humanity.

We have to talk: justice demands that people who use drugs – not doctors, not families, not advocates on our behalf, but ourselves, on our own terms – have this conversation and demand that responsibility – and demand that, most importantly, of ourselves.

As far as building a new context, one which will end this situation, so we can find ourselves somewhere new, again I’ll cite Dr Tyndall’s work, and refer to the ten recommendations from last year’s Overdose Action Exchange. This is about everything: there’s no magic wand. These ten points intersect: three of them address the necessity of decriminalization.

The criminal nature of these substances resulted from the 1907 Anti-Asian riots, which happened here in Vancouver, where Canada’s War on Drugs began, so it’s fitting and just that you can make choices to end it. A decision was made then, a historically contingent decision that some substances indicate a moral failure, and some substances are good for one’s health. This is a historical fact, a political fact: this is not a necessary fact.

This is a choice.

A choice that was made and continues to be made each day that prohibition holds such power over our lives and determines the nature of our deaths.

We need to have a conversation about the way we deal with pain. About the role of drugs in society. About which drugs are good and which drugs are bad. And why we make those decisions. It’s helpful we’re having this conversation nationally around marijuana, but this, this is the conversation that people are literally dying for.