Looking beyond the addiction

Why we must eradicate the stigma surrounding substance abuse issues 

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Geneviève Nolet believes in a more empathetic approach toward drug users.

Drug addiction needs to be treated as a public health issue—not a crime. 

Drug users are people too, but that’s rarely reflected in their treatment. This stigma surrounding substance abuse in Canada is the result of laws that place retribution ahead of rehabilitation. 

Alternatively, if the federal government were to decriminalize all drugs, it’d prioritize users and empathize with their reasonsfor using.

Emphasizing punishment over treatment for using drugs does little to solve the longstanding problem of addiction in Canada. By taking an empathetic approach toward addicts, we accept rather than exclude and encourage their hopes of getting healthy.

It’s vital to remember, the act of using isn’t more important than its intent. Decriminalizing drugs and recognizing the conditions that lead drug users to use will both decrease the stigma and reduce excessive drug use.

Many drug users use drugs as a way to self-medicate, whether that be for physical or psychological pain relief.

Consider an athlete who suffers a severe injury and is prescribed opiates to relieve pain. If their physician were to suddenly cut off their prescription—which has been the case for some when OxyContin was delisted in 2012—they’d have to find other means to relieve their pain, like through black-market dealers.

Decriminalizing drugs in Canada would be a constructive approach to decreasing the stigma around substance abuse stigma while placing an essential focus on the user as a valued person.

By funding drug plans, harm reduction methods, and healthcare for people suffering from substance use, the government would prioritize users’ safety and have greater quality control of all drugs. 

Similarly, with the increasing pervasiveness of fentanyl in street drugs, a controlled substance program would limit the contamination and lacing of drugs. In Ontario, opioid-related overdoses have become more and more common—they’re now ranked as the third most common cause of accidental death in the province, with more than 5,000 deaths since 2000. 

Introducing quality control over street drugs would also reduce criminal rates. If users were to get their drugs from a state-owned dispensary, they wouldn’t resort to crimes such as theft and prostitution to get their fix. 

Decriminalization would make substance users’ health a priority. Instead of spending money on tackling crime, the government could dedicate more resources to prevention and harm reduction programs, like healthcare, housing, and support groups. 

This wouldn’t only save thousands of endangered addicts, it’d also make cities safer by reducing drug-related crimes and allowing police officers to focus on more severe offenses. In other countries, this approach to substance abuse has proved successful. 

Since decriminalizing all drugs in 2001, the drug-related burden on Portugal’s criminal justice system was reduced drastically. Opiate-related deaths and sexually transmitted diseases also decreased significantly. 

The Portuguese government further implemented a job creation program that encouraged users to contribute to society—giving them a sense of purpose and increasing their quality of life. If Canada were to adopt a similar strategy, it’d lead to a society where more people are included and encouraged to contribute. 

Struggling users would feel accepted, and receive the support needed to address the root cause for their substance abuse. In any case, it’s more logical and realistic to emphasize harm reduction and safe drug use rather than complete abstinence. 

Education on the risks of taking drugs as well as harm reduction and drug treatment is also fundamental for the stigma around substance abuse to resolve. 

Offering one way of teaching prevention is a Naloxone kit, a treatment that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose like fentanyl. These kits are currently available for free in Ontario pharmacies, where training is offered to anyone with a valid OHIP card. 

This is particularly important for students, given the common use of drugs at parties, bars, and events such as Homecoming and St. Patrick’s Day. 

While decriminalization is still far off, progress is being made. In July, the Kingston Street Health Centre launched their Overdose Prevention Site, where local substance users can receive nonjudgmental support, supervision, and clean supplies while using drugs.

There are real steps being taken toward empathy and acceptance, though much needs to be done to fix our current social and judicial treatment of drug users and how to confront addiction.

We need to support substance users with help, love, and compassion. After all, they’re people deserving of respect just like anyone else.  

Geneviève Nolet   is a second-year languages, literature and cultures major.


decriminalization, drugs, federal government

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