In the last 18 months I have been witness to something amazing: the empowerment of a group of people who usually live in the margins of our society – drug users.
With the goal of reaching out and supporting the health care needs of people who use illicit drugs, Blood Ties Four Directions began hosting weekly meetings. While we were able to bring to the drug users important health information such as methadone access, Hepatitis-C treatment, harm reduction techniques and overdose prevention, something else was also unfolding at the weekly meetings: empowerment, dignity and self-worth.
The Drug User Coalition members decided that they wanted you – the average person in our community – to know them a little better, to understand them and to see them as the whole persons they are. Over several weeks they worked together to put these words together – all of the quoted paragraphs in this article – for you.
“We are the Drug User Coalition. In 2012 we began as a peer support group meeting weekly to discuss issues affecting people who use drugs in Yukon. When we started there were only two or three people coming; however, in the past year, we have had steady attendance of about 10 people.
“We discuss a broad range of topics including: health and wellness, housing, empowerment, drug policy and treatment options. As well, we have been learning from similar groups that exist in other regions in Canada and the world. Our goal is to give a voice to people who use drugs in Yukon.
“Our community had a need for a group like ours; where the concerns of drug users could be heard in a safe non-judgemental environment. As people who use drugs, we have experienced discrimination and marginalization in our efforts to get housing, food and employment. Through attending this group, we are reminded that we are not only our addiction; that there is more to us. We are people with jobs, homes, families, and we contribute positively to the community.
“The Drug User Coalition empowers people who use drugs to have a voice and to be safe. We are not just drug users; we are people first.
“Our message to the community of Whitehorse is that drug use exists in our community. Please, don’t look away from the issues we face as drug addicts. We want equal access to the resources available. We need to access clean equipment in a safe non-judgemental environment; we need opportunities to earn a living, safe housing, and health care. People who use drugs are people first. We are human beings and seek acceptance. We need help and support, not above anyone else, but not forgotten either. We are members of this community and have valuable insights and perspectives to provide.”
Empowerment and dignity is one of the best health outcomes we could ever have hoped for. People who use drugs must first and foremost see themselves as people who have the right not to be marginalized.
Once people no longer accept and see themselves as marginalized, they no longer accept discriminatory practices such as being banned from health centres, housing programs, and other social programs they might need in the journey to becoming as healthy as possible.
The second thing that happens when you bring a group of people together every week that are used to being isolated is that they empower each other and invest in the health of each other.
“Our message to other people who are using drugs is we want you do it safely. The Drug User Coalition does not promote drug use but we do promote safe drug use. We operate from a harm reduction approach which is a philosophy that supports the development of policies and programs that help people address the harmful effects of substance use including overdose, HIV, Hepatitis C, addiction, poverty, violence, isolation, homelessness and incarceration.”
I am proud to be able to offer the weekly support group to the Drug User Coalition, I am privileged to witness the empowerment and dignity of these people, and I am better for knowing them – and now, dear reader, I hope you are too.
Patricia Bacon is the executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions Centre.