COMMENTARY: Support don’t punish

International Support Don’t Punish Day is June 26

Jesse Whelen

As a society, it is time we rethink how we treat people who use drugs.

More than 10,000 people have died from an overdose in Canada since the beginning of 2016, an amount equal to more than a quarter of the Yukon. In our small territory, 20 people have died of an overdose since the crisis began in 2016, with 16 of those deaths attributed to fentanyl.

Countless others are living with injury and trauma caused by overdoses. These injuries and deaths are entirely preventable when people who use drugs have access to harm reduction tools and knowledge.

What is harm reduction? It is an action someone takes to minimize the harmful effects of an activity. Wearing a bike helmet or a seat belt are common everyday examples we are all familiar with.

For people who use drugs, harm reduction can mean ensuring they always have new, sterile equipment, a naloxone kit (to reverse opioid overdoses), access to treatment when they are ready, and someone to talk to for mental and physical supports.

Denying people harm reduction will not reduce drug use, but it will increase rates of overdose, HIV, and Hepatitis C, as well as increase costs to the health care system related to emergency room visits and treatment of chronic diseases. Conversely, local programs like take-home naloxone, fentanyl testing, and increased awareness about the tainted drug supply have so far helped make 2019 free from overdose deaths.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that criminalizes drug use and forces us to talk about harm reduction only in ‘designated areas’ using hushed tones. We avoid honest but difficult conversations about drug use, even when most of us care deeply about someone who uses drugs or have had our own struggles with addiction.

People who use drugs worry about being shamed, stigmatized, and even criminalized by friends, family, service providers and the general public. It is when people are unwilling to talk about or admit their own drug use due to shame and stigma that allow the real harms to occur.

People may use alone, significantly increasing their risk of death from an overdose. Others may end up sharing equipment and acquiring disease because they feel too ashamed to access a needle-exchange service. Finally, people must be able to be honest about their drug use before treatment can be a beneficial option.

As a response to the ineffective and dangerous war on drugs and the social shaming of people who use drugs, International Support Don’t Punish Day — June 26 — was launched in 2013.

Last year, events were held in 234 cities in nearly 100 countries to mark the day, and this year should be even bigger. Events call for changes in drug policy to allow people access to a regulated drug supply, and for changes in the way society deals with drug use. Specifically, Support Don’t Punish advocates for a social shift away from punishing people who use drugs towards a model where they are supported through harm reduction and treatment models.

As an individual, here are five things you can do to offer support to people who use drugs:

• Be open, warm, curious, and non-judgemental when you talk to someone about using drugs. Make sure that you are really listening instead of simply offering advice the person has likely heard many times before.

• Educate yourself on harm reduction and treatment services available in your community that you can share with others.

• Before blaming someone for their drug use, take some time to consider the factors in that person’s life that may be contributing to addiction. For example, unresolved trauma often underlies substance use.

• Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues about the harms caused by the war on drugs and why it is important to support harm reduction programs and changes to drug policy. You could even write to your MP or MLA to let them know how you feel.

• Get a free take-home naloxone kit at any of over a dozen locations throughout the Yukon. Keep it on you when you are out in public or show someone who uses drugs how to administer naloxone and then give them the kit. Naloxone and training are available at many pharmacies, community health centres, territorial hospitals, Blood Ties, the Outreach Van, Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services, as well as other places.

International Support Don’t Punish Day gives us an opportunity to tell people who use drugs that they are cared for and not forgotten. When people are properly supported, many of the harms associated with drug use can be eliminated.

Jesse Whelen is the harm reduction counsellor with the Blood Ties Four Directions Centre in Whitehorse. He is also in the process of completing his social work degree at Yukon College.