Panel puts harm reduction lens on future of Canada’s drug policy

Eugene Oscapella, an expert from the department of criminology from the University of Ottawa, speaks at a Canadian Harm Reduction Policy panel. (Anna O’brien)

Anna O’brien
Life Reporter

“Normalization,” says Patricia Erickson, a senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who has been studying drug policy in Canada for over 35 years, “is not a dirty word.”

Erikson kicked off an event thrown by the Canadian Harm Reduction Network on Tuesday, joined by six other panelists with various drug-policy related backgrounds. The event at the University of Toronto in the downtown was to discuss the future of Canada’s drug policy as well as bring awareness to the importance of harm reduction.

“I started addiction research in 1973, and I thought it was interesting but (drug use) will be legalized soon and I’ll move on,” says Erickson. “Well, now it’s 2017, and here I am still fighting.”

The Canadian Harm Reduction website defines harm reduction as the “policies, programs and practices that aim to reduce the negative health, social and economic consequences that may ensue from the use of legal and illegal psychoactive drugs, without necessarily reducing drug use.” It focuses on public health, human rights and social justice. Through educating the public, its intention is to benefit people who use drugs, families and commuties.

Joe Fiorito, a former Toronto Star columnist and award winning author, notes the negative connotation that is associated with drug users.

“Although Toronto is progressive, people are still frightened at the very notion of harm reduction,” says Fiorito. “We have people dying on the streets from these drugs, and we’re prosecuting the drug users, while some of them are the greatest people you’ll ever know.”

One of such individual is Raffi Balian, a drug user activist and program coordinator of CounterFit Harm Reduction Program. Raffi spoke to the large crowd that attended the event and shared some of his most intimate stories.

“Fentanyl patches have kept me alive,” says Balian. “Truthfully, there is no fentanyl problem, there is a prohibition problem. Once criminalization ends, safe drug use can occur. Today, it’s fentanyl, tomorrow, it will be something else. The stigma is on the user, so the user becomes the problem, when it is the system that’s the problem.”

Balian is currently at the beginning stages of opening a supervised injection service in Toronto, following in the footsteps of the facilities that have been in Europe and Vancouver for many years. Those types of programs are meant to further harm reduction and end the pain—both psychological and physical—that is associated with wrongful use.

“Trump did not make up alternative facts,” says Eugene Oscapella, a lecturer on drug policy in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa. “It’s been going on for decades with drug policies. Better prescription practises, supervised injection sites, maintaining facilities, youth education, and much more is needed in today’s society.”

Longstanding government resistance in Canada to decriminalizing drug use became part of a wider cultural norm, according to some of the experts.

Trevor Stratton, the Coordinator for the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV/AIDS, stated that although the fight is hard and long, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sounding a welcome new tone on the issue.

“We finally have a government who has made a public statement about not stigmatizing drug users, and polls that support this policy,” says Stratton. “We are finally on the cusp of achieving our goal.”

To end the night, Joe Fiorito noted that although it seems like the fight has just begun, progress has already been made for many years.

“I know our fight for decriminalization seems staggeringly slow,” he says. “But, my God, what a ways we have come.”

Humber College offers cost-free counselling services for all students who feel the need to use them. Numerous events, clinics, workshops and appointments available on the school’s Health and Counselling website.

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