name change, frame change

“What do we even call this?” is a question i’m glad people have asked. and i’ve been thinking about that history of the words we use to describe a long event that is so unspeakably horrible. “there are no words” elected people say, and then they go on and on.

at the beginning, we really didnt know what was happening. just that everybody was dying. everywhere. all the time. you cant look at the overall situation when people are dying right in front of you, surrounding you, you’re drowning in the corpses of your friends. thats all you know. you think about it, or try to, and thought becomes a screaming endless grieving, filling your mind.

So this was referred to as an Opioid Crisis or sometimes a Fentanyl Crisis. The police still call it an Opioid Crisis. when others do, its a clear indication that they do not understand it at all, and arent willing to. Why? first, demonizing a class of drugs as the source of the problem not only misses the point but has done tremendous harm to disabled people who are increasingly surveiled and policed when these drugs are prescribed for chronic pain. its as if all opioids have become a free-floating evil that cause death on contact: that’s why police keep fainting and having panic attacks and need to be revived from “fentanyl exposure”. Which only happens to police. Its unusual for chemicals to be so… particular..

the Evil Drug framing is how you a Get The Bad Drugs Off Our Streets / Out of Our Country response. Cops seize drugs from users and dealers, bust “labs” and politicians blame China for the scourge of drugs and have for a hundred years. Anti-Asian racism is embedded in canadian drug prohibitionist law and was intended to divide working-class settlers from differing places of origin from each other. Drug law enforces racism and borders and white supremacy and was designed to. And have been quite successful.

Back then, it was an Overdose Crisis, especially once Overdose Prevention Sites were made legal, in December 2016. But just as Overdose Prevention Sites didnt prevent overdoses (they did, and do, prevent death), calling it an Overdose Crisis didnt convey what was happening. We talked about this all the time. Because we knew we were wrong.

This was at the 2017 BCCDC Overdose Action Exchange conference

“It’s not an opioid crisis” is a true statement, but what do we call it? Like lots of activist-type work, the default reaction to authority is Against That: NO. but if our goal is policy change, that’s really social change (because policy change that never exists in everyday human reality is bullshit and is only for you and your CV), we need to figure out what things are, not just say what they’re not. we need to imagine what we want and describe what we need, and then we can create it.

“Overdose means you take too much of what you ordinarily take — too much of your dose. [These are] poisonings because you don’t know what you’re using. People don’t know what they’re putting in their body. They don’t know the composition of the substance, or its potency. Why haven’t we changed the language? I don’t know. It just takes a little bit of extra thought and care, just to recognize that changing the language changes how you think about it,” Ward says. “This isn’t actually about drugs, it’s drug policy.”

wait i do know why. it’s because we have failed to understand that our context is radically different: synthetic drugs changed everything, but our language hadn’t, and our response, tragically, hadnt changed either.

At that point, I’d been calling it the Poisoning Massacre for over a year. I paid close attention to how people reacted when I used that phrase: some jumped. others winced. I called these Drug policy-related deaths (not drug-related) and went on about Social Murder, explaining that these thousands of deaths were the result of systemic violence embedded in law and enacted throughout social relations.

All of these were ways to push back the narrative that the provincial government has exerted since taking office in 2017 when they created the Ministry of Mental Health & Addictions to contain & control this narrative and co-opt the people chosen by the BCCSU to be at the table (while the BCCSU developed clinical guidelines for addiction medicine).

the deaths increased and every month the minister of this would release a statement like this

So, are they trying to address what’s happening? Is the goal to end the emergency? Because even if every person who uses drugs compulsively and has a physiological dependence on that substance were to go to “treatment” that would not end the emergency. what about the safe supply projects? Look at Malcolmson’s mandate letter. The instruction is to “separate more people from the toxic drug supply,” and therefore, leave the toxic drug supply as it is.


Our response to crisis is determined by how we name the crisis, and our naming is a framing: our understanding of reality is shaped by the words we choose to use.

a screenshot of the BCCDC page titled Unregulated Drug Poisoning Crisis Dashboard
check it out

Maybe we should regulate?

There’s a lot to say about this change and the significance of making this break from the criminal / medical drug policy binary to recognizing this as an economic crisis which requires governments to intervene in the marketplace as the regulator to address. it becomes obvious, from an economic perspective, that we must replace the entire illicit drug supply with regulated substances accessible to all.

We can discuss the other things after the emergency is over.