Stating the obvious…?

Here’s an easy-to-swallow statement: I think it’s sad when people die.

I’m going to assume most people generally agree with me there.
But let’s digress for a moment. (Although I’m pretty sure you’ll see where I’m headed.)

A few days ago, I completed a government survey on supervised drug consumption sites. As I wrote in the survey, I lived near the Calgary-based consumption site (located across the street from where this photo was taken); I previously owned a condo in the area for nine years. For most of that time, the consumption site didn’t exist – so I feel like I have a decent “before/after” picture in my head. I don’t doubt that people have experienced issues in the neighbourhood since the site was created, but it’s only fair to note the area also had issues before.

The online survey asked about people on the street, litter, debris, theft, and so on. I responded that I had seen and experienced all those things both before and after the consumption site’s existence. The major difference for me after the site opened was knowing there were professionals nearby who might be able to help, and a greater police presence.

Of course, that’s just my experience. As I said, I don’t doubt there are others with different experiences. Those folks deserve to have their concerns heard, and they deserve for effort to be put toward addressing those concerns. I’m not sure, however, that the need to have concerns addressed outweighs the need to have fewer Albertans die. Just because I don’t (usually) know the people dying of overdoses doesn’t mean I think they deserve to die.

Because here’s the thing: supervised consumption sites can prevent people from dying. According to a recent news article, the site I lived near has already responded to 134 overdoses in 2019. And even back in 2012 when this other article was published, research showed that supervised consumption sites had averted thousands of deaths in several countries.

Our own government website in Alberta says 733 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017, and notes supervised consumption services can reduce not only the number of deaths, but also the transmission of diseases and infection, public substance use, and discarded needles.

Addictions are complex and not easily fixed. They cause damage – physical, emotional, financial, etc – and often make it difficult to empathize with someone who has an addiction (someone, it might be said, who is both suffering and causing suffering). So, I understand it’s easier to complain, get angry, or demand simple fixes.

But I also understand a few other things:

I understand that people who work with high-risk populations can suffer vicarious trauma from trying to save lives. I’m thinking about staff at shelters, firefighters and police officers who arrive first at an overdose scene, etc. If the people these folks are trying to resuscitate were instead visiting a supervised consumption site, the resuscitation might be less of an emergency, and it could be provided by someone who has appropriate training and support.

Even better, the professionals at supervised consumption sites know how to talk with people using drugs and, where possible, refer them to treatment and other services when a person is ready and able to make that kind of change.

I also understand that not everyone using drugs is part of a so-called “high-risk” population. According to another report using U.S. data, 1 in 8 adults have now had a family member or close friend die from opioids. Realizing that overdoses can affect all kinds of people and families, a woman in Calgary is trying to change the face of addiction. Her partner died of an overdose and it’s been a couple of years since I first saw her in the news, but I remembered enough of her situation to dig up this link.

I also understand there are economic considerations. A 2012 publication comments, “when the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last reviewed the country’s drug strategy, in 2001, it estimated that of the $454 million spent annually on efforts to control illicit drugs, $426 million (93.8%) was devoted to law enforcement.” I’m not suggesting we do away with the law enforcement, but imagine how much money we might save in the long run if funding could also be devoted to lasting treatment and prevention?

You might be reading this and calling me political/partisan names. So, not for the first time, I’ll remind readers that not everything has to be about dividing ourselves into “for” and “against” camps. Besides: I’m deliberately not talking politics.

I’m talking about the same sentence I started with: I think it’s sad when people die. Fortunately, there’s evidence to show fewer people may die with use of supervised consumption sites. We can demand those sites be carefully considered, well-run, and adequately secured…But we should also not be afraid to demand that fewer people die.Maybe There's More



*Side note: if you want to voice your opinions on this topic, there’s still 24 hours to fill out the government survey (click here). Longer term, you may also considering supporting the “DOAP team”, which does amazing work with some of the people affected by this issue.

7 thoughts on “Stating the obvious…?

  1. The opioid crisis in north America is interesting and depressing to observe from overseas. It hasn’t hit our neck of the woods yet, but most trends to come this way after a year or two.

    I’m curious as to the causes. Do you have any insights?

    I don’t mean the reasons why people are becoming addicted; that’s too big a subject. I’m more interested in the question, “why opioids and why now?”.

    In my experience, recreational drug use is as much a function of what is readily available as it is demand. I might wish to follow Lemmy’s advice to his son to “stay away from heroin; speed is far safer”, but if I can’t buy speed, I may be tempted.

    I’ve read some terrifying statistics about possible numbers of fentanyl deaths being in the many tens of thousands a year in the USA. Where are these doses coming from and why? When did it start?

    Not entirely unrelated; I was talking to a colleague last week who has responsibility for a large workforce on an industrial site. He suggested one of the selling points of some of the harder substances is that marijuana lingers in the body at testable levels for a long time by comparison. i.e. people make the judgement call that, if they are to get high this weekend, better to be on the hard stuff and not lose their job on Monday. Obviously, a non-addict can see the potential existential flaw in that logic.


    1. Good questions and musing. One of the U.S. research articles I saw last night (I’d share the link, but don’t have it anymore) included stats related to the number of prescriptions that doctors are writing for opioids as pain meds. The number has come down a lot over the last several years, but the article stated a high number of people are now instead turning to street versions when they blocked from getting legal, prescription pills. This statement aligns with what I know from personal stories I’ve heard closer to home. Have you followed any of the American court cases related to pharma companies being taken to task for selling the prescription versions (early on) as non-addictive? It’s very interesting. (And very American.)

      All of this still begs the question of why some people who get prescription drugs are OK to wean off them, and why others get addicted and start taking risky behaviour to satisfy the addiction. I think that takes you back to the reasons why there are addictions in the first place…which, as you said, is a big subject.

      Regarding your conversation with a colleague about industrial sites, I actually just had one of those conversations on Saturday — talking about people using cocaine instead of cannabis because it metabolizes faster and, as you note, is less likely to be detected in testing. That’s always seemed to me a very sad/frustrating unintended consequence of well-intentioned workplace safety programs.


      1. Thanks for the reply.

        I can see how the trigger may have been doctors/pharma companies playing fast and loose initially,

        However, it seems a strange coincidence that supply met demand for opioids so efficiently.

        It’s my view that, in many ways, the illegal drug market is about as “pure” an example of the supply/demand curve as we will see; consider the price of an ounce of weed, it’s generally tracked inflation perfectly.

        I find it hard to understand, though, how a wave of newly-addicted opium users suddenly prompted the “industry” to flip production from whatever it was delivering previously (cocaine from South America?) to illegal fentanyl (from China?).

        Was that a push rather than a pull?

        Anyway, addiction is horrid and doesn’t discriminate. If Jordan Peterson can fall into it, perhaps it’s a trap lying in wait for anyone who’s not always on their guard.


  2. Natalie

    Thank you for the much needed reminder to resist the “us” vs. “them” mentality. I find myself slipping into it way too easily these days.

    As for the supervised consumption site, you’ve articulated beautifully the whisps of thoughts that have been swirling in my head but that I couldn’t (or, more likely, haven’t taken the time to) make cogent. At work, I see very clearly the devastation of families left behind and the toll substance-related deaths are taking on first responders. We must demand/create an efficient, effective, and compassionate response to the issue for the sake of everyone.


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