When I was younger I had a pretty lax attitude about illegal drugs – you know, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone what does it matter what you do? My peer group was one in which recreational drugs were common, rampant really, and as a result I had a number of friends back in the day who struggled with heroin and coke addictions, not to mention the general malaise brought on by regular use of pot and party drugs (MDA, ecstacy, acid etc.) At twenty, drug use was a norm in my social circle, I didn’t question it and I certainly wasn’t in any position to judge it no matter what devastation it wrought.
The first close friend I had who died as a direct result of substance use was Duane who hung himself in his bathroom rather than struggle through withdrawal (I was 18, he was 24), the next was probably Shaun who died in a housefire after passing out drunk. A series of overdoses and substance-related accidents followed over the years as I moved on with my life and came over to Vancouver to get away from what had grown far too old – my ex-boyfriend Zak, Ken, Pete, TJ, Dylan, Clint, etc. etc. etc. There are too many to name, and I didn’t go to the funerals for most of them, determined as I was to cut that part of my life off and move on.
I was in university in Vancouver when the NDP were still in power and the campaign for harm reduction measures really took off with pressure levied on Dosanj and other party officials to decriminalize drug use and support safe injection sites and needle exchanges throughout the province. One of the reasons I joined the NDP at that time (no longer a member, don’t shoot me) was to lobby internally on this and other progressive campaigns – back then you could be critical internally without being marginalized right back out again (which isn’t the case today, for shame!) and there was a large internal block of solid activists fighting on these issues. Coming from my own background of drug culture, and living in Vancouver’s east side, I felt strongly that better measures needed to be in place for those who were caught in the substance abuse cycle. Rather than continuing to criminalize the illness of addiction, both the individual and community would benefit from a health-focused approach, one that gave safety and support rather than leaving people alone to die of their disease. Make sense right?
Makes sense on so many levels, I was firm in my commitment to that struggle until my friend Noel overdosed and was subsequently memorialized at the welfare funeral chapel on Hastings Street. I’m not sure which affected me more, the passing of someone I had known for fifteen years (and who I was very fond of), or the absolute grief of a funeral attended by old friends, many of whom were pinned on heroin for the service and wake following. I cried in the street with my old roomate who was still using, and scared as hell by this recent death. I drank later in the kitchen at a house party and wondered what I was doing there amongst the wreckage of my past. Another death, another round of needles being shared. It was time to go, and go entirely away from what had destroyed the lives of so many in my community.
The problem I identified at that time with the harm reduction movement – the reason I couldn’t go back to it after confronting this ugly grief – was that as much as I agreed with the principles of harm reduction, I didn’t agree with a movement that downplayed the *real* effects of illegal drugs – controlled or not. I recognized that whether or not there was a safe-injection site in town my friend Noel would probably still be dead, as would most of the people I had known. Giving people free drugs so they aren’t tempted to dishonesty and theft doesn’t change the core dishonesty that lies at the heart of addiction. Giving people greater access to health services means nothing if they can’t maintain fundamental relationships in their lives – something that continual drug use makes an impossibility. And so as much as I still support harm reduction measures, I think a much greater emphasis needs to be placed on getting people into rehab and creating room for them once they decide to go.
I’m not saying it’s not in the literature, but there were definitely elements in the activist community at that time that not only downplayed the real effects of addiction, treated drug abuse as just another lifestyle choice (no more harmful than any other) and even romanticized the outlaw drug user as some type of anti-establishment force.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because a very dear friend of mine – one who has used drugs on and off for years – has recently developed a very serious and frightening heroin habit. The type of habit that sees one eventually sleeping in Downtown Eastside doorways if not dead altogether. And I’m at a loss – partly because I don’t want to scare her off, but also because she’s caught in both the dishonesty and the romanticization of her situation and I can’t penetrate it. I’ve been here before with friends, finding myself very angry at the drugs in this city, very angry about a whole neighbourhood ghetto that exists to service addiction and a system that won’t adequately fund the solutions to stop it (like real rehab spaces!) – wishing I could give her and every other addict a shake and tell them “this isn’t life, you deserve more than this” (quite frankly, this friend complained to me not so many months ago about how the walking dead in the DTES creeped her out – I’m not sure she realizes how much she resembles them now).
So what to do? It brings up a lot for me, this movie on repeat – the heroin users who have drifted through my arms and eventually run out of life entirely – I wish desparately I could control the outcome of this one. But I can’t. Just need to figure out if there’s anything constructive I can do in the meantime, until she comes to her senses, until she comes out of this habit and back into our lives.
Thank you for writing this Meg. Will and I just read it together and are moved for obvious reasons and appreciate your insights.
Thank you for putting into words these feelings and this history. Your story is our story, and it helps to read it right now.
this resonates. and challenges my thoughts on harm reduction. good writing!