Canadians are no strangers to the ongoing debate about offering medical services to drug abusers. The question of publicly funded methadone clinics and needle exchange programs call several issues into play, and discussion of these programs is often met with heated opinion. Woodstock glorified drug experimentation and the Martini bars of the late 80s and early 90s did nothing to demystify the sexy image of drug use. It hasn’t been until the last decade or so that mainstream media has reached out to show the darker side of drugs, the side that abusers often try to hide.
I have to wonder though, has this portrayal gone too far? Has the pendulum swung too far the other way? We can hardly have a marijuana legalization debate without the phrase “slippery slope” come into play. Often, opponents throw perfectly good arguments to the wayside, opting for hyper scare tactics and going straight for the throat with threats of “our children” sliding into heroin and methamphetamine abuse. What many of these opponents chose to not see is that while Canadians are distracted by Marc Emery headlines, teenagers are holding up pharmacies for Oxycontin and Percocet. Prescription drugs can be found more easily at your local junior high or high school than posters of sexy vampires. Truly, marijuana is more difficult for kids these days to find than Ritalin.
Without hyperbolizing, drug abuse is everywhere one may think it could be. It is at the local pub, hanging over the (very friendly) recently laid off, middle-aged divorcee. It is at any high school; outside, inside, teachers, students, staff. And yes, it is with the strung out junkie on East Hastings asking you for a dollar you know will not be going towards a sandwich. The truth of the matter is that addiction and drug abuse is a part of our Canadian society, a characteristic we may not find so desirable, but one that is there.
Clinics around the country that specialize in aiding these individuals are vilified for enabling their addiction. Instead of heroin, addicts are given methadone in safe doses in a controlled environment. The infamous East Hastings safe injection site has been a source of much political controversy; our current Prime Minister lambasted the use of public health care funds to enable addicts. Winnipeg implemented a program in 2004 that distributed crack pipes to addicts to curb the spread of Hepatitis A and C. Needle exchange programs have been in effect in Canada since 1989. The first started in Vancouver’s East Hasting and now they are a prominent healthcare feature across Canada, owing to their effectiveness at curbing blood-borne diseases. Ontario has the most needle exchange programs, a notable sixteen. Since needle exchange programs have been implemented, there has been a drop in reported HIV cases across Canada. However, this is not to say correlation implies causation; there has also been an increase in the use of crack cocaine in Vancouver and Toronto. By curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, we are saving the Canadian public millions of dollars in public health care funding. Not only that, we are providing a safe place for addicts to go when they have hit their bottom, when they decide that their life is worth fighting addiction for.
One methadone clinic, formerly in Calgary’s Braeside Community, has been forced to move three times since its opening five years ago. A clinic with 500 plus patients, ranging from doctors and nurses addicted to the pain killers they are paid to administer, to homeless men and women who have been battling addiction their whole lives. This clinic, like many others, provides a service higher that just addiction help. It provides hope for change. Canadians believe strongly in freedom, in hope, and in progress; yet all too often we forget that those words must mean something for us to truly get anywhere. Those words are free in a world where high-income brackets are valued higher than volunteer hours.
The most controversial program to establish itself in a Canadian city is Vancouver’s three-year pilot program, a safe injection site. Designed to be a safe place for abusers to use intravenous drugs, it was created to prevent overdoses and to encourage drug abusers to seek help for their addiction. Since it’s opening in 2003, the site has seen upwards of 600 visitors a day. Safe injection sites and needle exchange programs are not the talking points Canadians use to promote healthy addiction counseling. Alongside these programs, methadone clinics and regular visits made by doctors and nurses to high risk areas do much encourage addicts to get clean, and support those who are battling their addiction.
There is not one face of an addict. There is not an age bracket, income level, neighborhood, race, gender or sexual orientation that defines addiction. In a world so politically correct, sometimes the truth gets lost in an attempt to not offend. The truth is, addicts exist. Drugs exist. Drugs exist in forms we often shy away from labeling as such. Cigarettes and alcohol, two very common and socially acceptable forms of abuse are continually glorified by our peers and by our societal instincts. Many University of Lethbridge students just finished off a first week back filled with “keggers”, house parties and Fresh Fest which all placed a very high importance on indulging in these two drugs, with a heavy emphasis on alcohol.
I don’t believe in constricting someone’s right to destroy themselves. If it is a person’s life goal is to destroy their liver by the age of thirty, so be it. However, when those same individuals cry out against providing a space for addicts who are interested in changing their lifestyle because they have a serious case of “Not In My Backyard,” I feel obligated to point out their own poor life choices.
Original published: Features Editor, The Meliorist, University of Lethbridge. Volume 43, Issue 02.