The statistics are grim; BC Coroners Service says that a record number of 2,511 people died by toxic drugs in 2023. That means almost seven lives were lost everyday in this province. Unregulated drug toxicity is the leading cause of death in B.C. for people 10 to 59, causing more deaths than homicides, suicides, accidents and natural diseases combined. No community has been untouched.
As a person with lived experience, I work frontline in this public health emergency. I have lost many people I love and care about and I witness daily the consequences of criminalizing and marginalizing people who use drugs.
Many in this community are frustrated and angry about the rise of crime and the increased visibility of drug use.
There is a common sentiment that people who use drugs have caused their own suffering and should “go to treatment, get a job and become a productive member of society.”
These beliefs dehumanize and stigmatize people who use drugs, and force our most vulnerable community members farther into the shadows. They perpetuate myths that “only addicts are dying” and make people hesitate to access harm reduction services.
The framework of harm reduction is founded on the reality that for better or worse, drug use is a part of our world and makes the choice to minimize the harmful effects rather than ignore or condemn them.
Alcohol was once a prohibited substance that is now regulated and safe supplied by the government. It’s an example of harm reduction in action: facing the reality that people consume alcohol and implementing strategies to reduce harm.
People who use drugs are at great risk because they do not have equal access to health services and supports that allow for a life of dignity. We need non-judgmental, non-coercive provision of services and resources. B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe again made a plea for an expansion of safer supply and a “systems change” that treats substance use as a health issue, not a criminal problem.
Can we recognize that the housing crisis, poverty, class, systemic racism, social isolation, intergenerational trauma, discrimination affects a person’s capacity for dealing with harms related to drug use?
Does witnessing public drug use or walking by a tent encampment make us feel “unsafe” or does it make us uncomfortable? Uncomfortable because we have to face the ways our society is structured and allows people to fall through the cracks.
There is no magic solution, however there are evidence based harm reduction strategies that minimize the negative consequences of drug use. A path forward starts with acceptance of what is real and allowing people who use drugs to be the primary voices in informing the work ahead.
Harm reduction is commitment to the process of relationship building. This process takes patience, compassion and a willingness to face our own humanity.
I work as the program lead for the Street Degree and Peer Led Trauma Education Program. These programs have been born out the work being done by peers and frontline workers to teach skills and build capacity to respond to this emergency. If you are interested in learning more about these harm reduction programs being done in our community, please contact me at email@example.com.
Jaylene Scheible is Harm Reduction Program Lead, Street Degree & Peer Led Trauma Education with BC Hepatitis Network. She was also most recently the coordinator for the Sunshine Coast Community Action Team.