COMMENTARY: Shifting the prevailing narrative of substance use

Blood Ties Four Directions Centre

Special to the News

Rarely does society have an opportunity to engage in a shared lived experience. The influence of COVID-19 has been transformative for us all in one way or another. Its impact has taught us many invaluable lessons. We have witnessed the strength of community working together and the value of accurate, reliable and clear science-based messaging. In order to address the COVID-19 pandemic we have been called to sacrifice for the greater good. These sacrifices deserve recognition and applause.

However, COVID-19 has also offered a sombre reminder that our society is far from being equal. The gaps in health and social equity have been magnified over the past number of months. Remaining on the margins of society are those who use drugs. People who use drugs continue to face discrimination instead “of having a fair opportunity to attain their full health potential” which “no one should be disadvantaged from achieving,” so says the World Health Organization. This objective defines health equity — yet it clearly does not encapsulate those who are being punished, instead of being supported.

Today, we are asking you to reflect, reframe and act.

Reflect

You are likely familiar with the opioid overdose crisis occurring throughout Canada. An alarming number of people who use opioids and other substances are at an increased risk of death largely due to a contaminated drug supply. In fact, across the country twelve people a day are dying of an opioid overdose — between 2016 and 2019 15,393 Canadians died of opioid overdoses. Put another way, we are experiencing two health crises simultaneously. One which we, as a society are united on combating (COVID-19), the other is neglected as people continue to face severe, yet preventable, health consequences rather than being supported (overdose crisis).

Consider some of the outcomes of an unsafe drug supply: increase in preventable overdose, less control over the substances results in less autonomy over informed decision making, ripples throughout social and community health, increased cost of medical care, and costs to Canadian taxpayers exceeding $2 billion a year. All which have corresponding implications to overall health and, in sum, health equity. Why then, does a safe supply not exist? Would it not be in everyone’s best interest to shift the lens to this public health crisis that still needs serious attention?

Reframe

It is time we change the prevailing narrative. Various suggestions have been made as potential solutions. But as it has become clear, the poisoning of the illicit drug supply remains the source of concern. Consider for a moment, access to a safe supply. This is to say, that people who use drugs would have access through legal, regulated channels to the substances they need. Safe supply would reduce organized crime, and violence associated with the illicit drug trade. By providing safe supply we could reallocate funds to community health initiatives rather than focus efforts on reactive responses to the expanding health crisis.

The provision of safe supply would increase health equity in the Yukon. Having access to a safe supply would mean a decrease in overdose deaths and hospitalizations and would provide people who use drugs with the opportunity to seek out services such as health care, treatment programs, counselling, housing and advocacy. It would in effect, increase health equity across the territory. In order for this to happen, we need your support.

Act

We at Blood Ties Four Directions Centre are asking that you reflect on the enduring consequences of a poisoned drug supply. We ask you to reframe the lens in which you view drug use — from a penalizing behaviour to a much larger public health crisis. Finally, we are asking that you act by joining us virtually on June 26 for the annual Support. Don’t Punish campaign. Visit the Blood Ties Facebook page where you will find links to more information about this movement and organizations that support safe supply. We are asking that safe supply be implemented with urgency and immediacy to provide unadulterated access to substances so that people who use substances are not at imminent risk of overdose due to a contaminated source.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we have been asked to reflect, reframe and act — through social distancing measures, frequent hand washing and staying home when sick. We have been asked to do this in order to keep our community safe and have seen the difference this can make for our community. We have witnessed the strength in numbers and how it benefits us all. Providing a safe supply of drugs is no different — it requires community engagement, collective action and support to make positive and lasting change. We ask you to consider how we all have a role to play in supporting health equity in our communities. Through collective action and support we may be able to combat not one, but two public health crises.

Blood Ties Four Directions Centre is a Whitehorse organization with a mission to eliminate barriers and create opportunities for people to have equal access to health and wellness and to live in the community with dignity.

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