Monday, August 21, 2006

Addiction misread
Aug. 18, 2006

The trouble with drugs is that most of us can use them just fine. The majority of people who try drugs - even street drugs - can quit using them fairly easily if they need to.
I’ve come to suspect that fact is why we’re still so damn hopeless at dealing with addiction. We just don’t get it. We’re a nation of enthusiastic users that really struggles with the concept that not everybody has such an easy relationship with drugs and alcohol.
Most of us will drink, drop, smoke or swallow various drugs over our lifetimes with little incident. We’ll go hard as teenagers and less hard as adults, and we’ll quit when the time seems right, for reasons ranging from the kids getting old enough to notice, the mornings getting harder to bear, or just the embarrassment of being 40 and having to buy marijuana from the kid on the corner.
For those of us so blessed, our drug use remains within our control. When we want to stop using, we do. We understand addiction exists on a theoretical level - thousands of university papers have explored the various aspects of addiction for decades now, and why people end up addicted is no real surprise anymore. But to the great detriment of the poor sods who are among that group, we still can’t shake the feeling that people with addictions simply aren’t trying hard enough.
Such lingering and misguided beliefs clearly drive our clumsy and conflicted actions around addiction. Otherwise, why would we even be having this ridiculous conversation about closing Vancouver’s highly successful safe-injection site? Why else would treatment and support remain so elusive throughout B.C.? What else would be the explanation for leaving profoundly ill people to live - and die - on the streets?
I’m a big believer in democracy, but some things can’t be left up to public whim. Issues that will have an impact on the health and happiness of the population as a whole and on generations to come cannot be decided on the basis of a political platform.
Stephen Harper’s government may want to believe that providing a safe, clean place for addicted people to use drugs is wrong. But it isn’t. Our drug-addiction strategy can’t be about anybody’s belief system, but needs to focus instead on what are the smart and effective things we need to be doing on any number of levels.
Public health. Compassion. Keeping the peace. Happy neighbourhoods. The building of relationships. Take your pick from a couple dozen good reasons for having a safe-injection site, for instance. With Vancouver’s site having operated for three years, there are now even more reasons: Less death; fewer needles lying around; more people taking part in daily conversations about getting clean. It’s working.
Admittedly, the need for safe-injection sites in our cities’ cores is something of a tragic reminder of our failure as a society. In a connected and healthy world, we would have responded to the issues underlying addiction long before it got to the point of herding people into big clinics to inject drugs.
But what’s done is done. Now we’re dealing with a new world order that includes large quantities of cheap drugs and a growing underclass being primed by their unhappy lives and family genetics to develop an addiction to them.
Step one in the plan: Get the politics out of the picture. Whether the Tories or the Liberals are in power shouldn’t make a whit of difference in how we manage the issues of addiction. If a safe injection site is accomplishing what it set out to do, then we ought to consider it a step in the right direction and move on to the next challenge. With so much still going wrong on the addiction front, we don’t need to waste any time tearing apart successful health services for irrelevant ideological reasons.
The argument against safe injection sites generally boils down to one of not wanting to “encourage” drug use. It’s a peculiar position to take in a nation that saturates itself with alcohol, prescription drugs and gambling, and makes even less sense in the context of the sad souls who frequent Vancouver’s safe-injection site.
A clinical, brightly lit room where sick and suffering people are injecting drugs isn’t as grim as a grubby little squat full of sleeping, crying, moaning addicts, but it’s still far from an appealing place to be. Just ask one of the hurting people lined up waiting for their turn. In terms of setting youngsters straight, it would be hard to envisage a better intervention than a visit to the local safe-injection site to see the skinny, abscessed clientele searching for a vein somewhere on their tired old bodies capable of withstanding yet another needle
Most of us will never know what that’s like, and that’s a lucky development. But we owe it to those who struggle with a very different reality to put aside our opinions for once and get on with doing the right thing.

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