November 14th, 2019

Guest Column: It’s a health issue, not a moral issue

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on May 17, 2019.

I am very concerned about the letter that Cypress-Medicine Hat UCP MLA Drew Barnes has written to the health minister requesting a reallocation of funds set aside for the supervised consumption site (SCS) in Medicine Hat. First and foremost, these decisions should be informed by science and medicine, not decided through political sentiments. I say this as a person with first-hand lived experience as a sister and daughter of loved ones whose lives were lost to addiction. I also say this as a professional with graduate degree education in psychology. I am informed about the science and evidence in support of harm reduction, including supervised consumption.

While I agree with Barnes that more treatment and supports are sorely needed, harm reduction and SCSs are also paramount, for many reasons. Regardless of how available treatment is, there will always be a large number of people in active addiction who are not ready or able to engage in treatment. Even if they are willing and able to engage in treatment, relapse is extremely common, often occurring multiple times. For these reasons, harm reduction efforts are absolutely essential to keep people alive, especially during the current fentanyl crisis. There has never been a death in a supervised consumption site.

Without the SCS, people will continue to use drugs in public places, including restrooms, alleys and parks. They will also continue to use alone where they die alone. SCSs engage the most marginalized and vulnerable in our community with the health care system. When others treat them with compassion and dignity, they are more likely to see themselves as worthy of care. When they are offered services by someone who works at an SCS with whom they have developed a relationship, they are that much more likely to accept those services.

We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. It is a health issue, not a moral issue. Our correctional system is in dire straits. People are using and dying in our jails, too. When they come out, they are even more likely to overdose due to reduced tolerance, and their social problems are compounded by the challenges they have reintegrating back into society. More policing and prohibition will not work. Our understanding of addiction and substance use is growing at an exponential rate. We need to listen to the experts who study these issues day in and day out, rather than swaying with political sentiments. People over politics!

As a sister, I never once entertained the idea that my brother was injecting drugs; I believed it was “those people” – the dirty, disgusting ones living under a bridge who would resort to that sort of awful behaviour. Did I ever wake up when I found out that my handsome younger brother had been injecting for almost 10 years, and had by that time destroyed nearly all of the veins in his body through his drug use. I saw my brother deteriorate from a physically healthy young man to a person completely overcome by the devastating physical and mental effects of his addiction from which he saw no possible way out. No one in their right mind would continue self-harming behaviour with such devastating consequences if they were able to simply make a choice to stop. Addiction is a complex brain disorder that affects cognition, behaviour and impulse control.

It is for him, and for all our affected sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and partners that I write to advocate for the supervised consumption site in Medicine Hat. While I understand and appreciate the concern of the general public about this site, I implore each and every person to consider all of the evidence, statistics and probabilities involved in this particular issue in order to take an informed stance.

Let’s provide our loved ones with dignity and hope rather than shame. While I understand fears such as increased risks to the neighbourhood or decreases in sales, we are talking about our loved ones’ lives, and their deaths. They deserve access to evidence-based treatment and respect as much as your families and businesses do. Let’s come together in our common humanity and find ways to mitigate the risks that some community members are concerned about, while also providing respect, compassion and evidence-based treatment for those suffering wit substance use disorder. Each of those affected is somebody’s someone.

Hat Overdose Prevention and Education (HOPE) is dedicated to reducing stigma and increasing knowledge about harm reduction in Medicine Hat. HOPE is calling on all supporters to join their letter writing campaign in response to Barnes’ letter to the health minister to show that he does not speak for all Medicine Hat constituents or Albertans. HOPE members are also affiliated with Moms Stop the Harm – momsstoptheharm.com

Dana Dmytro

Medicine Hat

(The writer is one of the founding members of HOPE , an advocacy group that supports a harm reduction approach to addiction and overdose.)

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