EVERY ONE OF US knows at least one person who has died from a drug overdose in the last few years. A co-worker. A friend’s brother-in-law. A son of another co-worker. A gifted author and friend. Those are some of who I know. And I know everyone else has their own losses. Twenty-two overdose deaths in Kamloops from just January to June of this year alone.
And now, news of a 17-year-old woman who has died at a summer concert.
There is one thing we can do. We can listen to ordinary people. People who use drugs. People who live with those who use drugs. Caregivers, cops and counsellors.
It will be ordinary people who find our solutions.
About 30 years ago, I had a friend who used drugs. Mostly intravenous cocaine and heroin. He didn’t use continually, but went in and out of using for about the first 10 years I knew him.
What he said helped most on getting off drugs was having a family doctor who would work with him to find solutions.
I also know that he had an extremely understanding employer. When he was using, he couldn’t work. But when he got his life back together, his employer would take him back, multiple times.
The whole time he used drugs, which was about 10 years, on and off, he had housing. Often by racking up huge credit card debts to pay the rent.
The final thing he had were friends. He and I have remained close friends to this day. As have many, many other friends who were in his circle 30 years ago. He used drugs, but he was also witty, funny, generous, and a loyal friend.
One thing he said didn’t help was the shame others put on him for using. The shame made it far, far harder to reach out for help, to keep himself safer.
He has been drug free for 20 some years now. But during those 10 years he used, there were times I wasn’t sure I would see him alive again when he went off on a bender. And he did overdose a few times. Thankfully the paramedics and doctors gave him the care he needed. Thankfully, fentanyl didn’t exist then.
At the time he used, harm reduction was not yet in practice. Harm reduction, of which needle exchange is only one small part, was just emerging in the 1980s and ’90s. AIDS was rampant, and treatments were non-existent. Clean needles were given out to help stop the spread of AIDS intravenously. There are currently 75,000 people living with AIDS in Canada. There is no vaccine or cure, but there are treatments. There would have been far more infected if clean needles weren’t given out.
At the time my friend feared AIDS as much as overdoses. Luckily, he never contracted AIDS, but he did acquire Hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a chronic disease that destroys the liver. It affects 250,000 Canadians. There is no vaccine or treatment for Hepatitis C. Harm reduction, which includes safe use of needles, is listed as one of the most important strategies to stop the spread of Hep C.
Now he is drug free. But with a chronic, untreatable, potentially deadly blood born disease.
I am deeply troubled when the mayor of Kamloops, Ken Christian, said last week on Radio NL that harm reduction had outlived its usefulness. He wants Interior Health to change how it hands out needles to drug users. He said, “The harm reduction ideas that we had in the ’90s that were largely predicated around the control of blood borne disease, really are not stepping up in terms of the kind of changes that fentanyl places, in terms of that street affected community.”
My friend contracted Hepatitis C before harm reduction, before the access to safe needles. Since then, the instances of AIDS and Hep C have been kept in check because of needle exchanges and harm reduction.
My friend was never street affected or homeless for the 10 years he used. He was actually a highly paid software programmer who worked for a top global companies. But he used intravenous drugs before there were needle exchanges and got Hep C.
Whether there are other forms of drug use, such as pills and tablets, that need other strategies to counter, does not reduce the need for safe needles.
As I said at the beginning, it will be ordinary people who will find solutions to the opioid crisis.
It will be people like my friend, who lived with drug use for 10 years and found a way out. It will be friends and family who support those around them to make better decisions. It will be the employers who support their employees to get counselling, and the doctors who are non-judgemental when meet their patients.
It will be teachers who tell students that ordinary people use drugs, not just the street affected. It will be people like Caroline King and Dennis Giesbrecht, who meet people where they are at, and have created an innovative needle buy-back program. It will be the extraordinary landlords who work with ASK Wellness to provide community members housing.
Taking away access to clean needles is not on the list of solutions.
Nancy Bepple is a former city councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.