Opinion: Vancouver is forced to look at inadequate drug policies

Feb 17 2022, 10:26 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Rachel Thexton, president of Thexton PR.

“Kids on the block!”

If you have spent time in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you have heard this — a signal for those handling drugs to stop and allow children to pass without seeing activity that may scare and confuse them. Anyone who knows the DTES community knows that there is compassion amongst the chaos of mental health emergencies and homelessness that plagues the area. It can be messy and disturbing, but there is also light amongst the darkness.

We must remember that Vancouver’s DTES community is Canada’s “ground zero” for the most traumatized and vulnerable population. If we want to feel more comfortable in Vancouver, we need to become more comfortable providing long-overdue support to fellow residents in need.

As someone who has struggled with substance use, and who also runs a successful small business, I understand the frustrations that currently divide Vancouver. Property crime, assaults and thefts are unacceptable and must be taken seriously by the legal system. Although stats show that crime has not increased in Vancouver, it’s clear that business owners are fed up with damaged property and that people are less comfortable walking Vancouver streets. I support an effective and consistent police presence, but I also believe that we can now clearly see the ugliness that accompanies inadequate mental health support and ineffective drug policies. We are now forced to look because the things we care about are in jeopardy.

There are many myths about substance use disorder and a lack of knowledge by even the most educated Canadians. Once we start to understand substance use, we will see that the connection between crime and those who use substances is complicated and has been building for years. It’s not acceptable seeing vandalism or needles in parks where our kids play, but after years of not providing adequate support to those using substances, and who live with mental illness, I’m surprised that the situation is not worse. We cannot continue using Band-Aid–style solutions and expect change to a massive health emergency.

Most substance users are not committing crimes and those who do need support now

There are substance users who commit crimes, but overall, they are in the minority. There is a smaller group who are repeatedly breaking the law and the majority of them are living with serious mental health issues, often combined with substance use disorder. These individuals need immediate care and access to safe and legal drug supply. There must be legal consequences for crime combined with the solutions we know will help to reduce future legal incidents and provide a chance at recovery if and when the person chooses. In the meantime, our tax dollars pay for an endless cycle of incarceration and hospitalizations while few are recovering and crime continues. 

Many BC residents who use substances don’t live or use in the DTES. They are often at the desk next to you at work, studying with you in the library, or standing behind you in the store. Many are using at home, and every day more men and women of all ages, income levels and backgrounds are dying. Promising youth are passing after seeking help repeatably, long-time users are passing from toxic drugs flooding our streets and every soul has equal value. 

Those prone to addiction are often sensitive and kind individuals who have experienced trauma. We need to address trauma—life experiences that would shock many. Most recovering substance users I know feel incredible shame for harm they caused while ill and it can be this guilt that causes relapse. Serving the community is often a part of self-forgiveness, and Vancouver is full of those in recovery doing amazing work helping others.

Substance users face serious challenges when seeking recovery

Ongoing substance abuse changes the brain substantially. The part of the brain that produces pleasure and motivation is essentially turned off and when drugs leave the system, the user needs to build new brain pathways to activate this vital pleasure function. This takes time, support and incredible strength. Throughout the initial recovery process, there are unbearable physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Even months later, the brain is still repairing, lacking natural “feel good” chemicals the average person has to enjoy simple pleasures like a favourite meal or activities with loved ones. This is why simply stopping is often not realistic. 

If you decide to stop substance use, there are a variety of recovery methods and treatment centres, many with low success rates, rigid philosophies, high costs and long waits. I spent time trying standard treatment programming and failing. We need a variety of recovery options and fast access to opiate agonist therapy (OAT) medications like Methadone and Suboxone. The average Canadian doctor still does not have much knowledge on addiction nor the ability to prescribe medications that save lives. The patient seeking help is also often faced with humiliation at their local pharmacy while the ingestion of their OAT is witnessed in front of everyone. Years ago, in early recovery, I was in the lab for urine samples and was forced to leave my infant in his stroller outside the bathroom to ensure my sample wasn’t tampered with. If a person wants recovery, and seeks OAT to help, they should be treated with trust and humility.

When those suffering from cancer or diabetes experience relapses, they are cared for with love and compassion. When those in recovery relapse, they are often bombarded with anger and blame. This needs to change and we will then see higher rates of recovery and reduced rates of crime and death from those who continue to use drugs.

If you live in BC and are between the ages of 19 and 39, your leading cause of death is illicit opioid toxicity

According to the BC coroner, 2021 was the deadliest year for illicit-drug overdoses, and if you are young, it’s the leading cause of death. That should be enough for immediate emergency action. For parents who continue to lose their children to toxic drugs, frustration grows as the issue is rarely addressed by our government leaders and daily deaths continue. Municipal crime should be taken seriously but perhaps it can finally force us to look at what we were turning away from?

We need to take action now and ask why every one of us is not fighting to help those dying in our city. Understanding, empathy and dialogue will help to create the change we need for a better Vancouver.

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