It’s Worth The Risk, Isn’t It?

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                          by Kenneth Bagnell     

    Yesterday, it happened again: in the evening at a club, five overdoses of drugs, one of them fentanyl, claimed the life of a very young woman, and left the others in serious condition. It goes on and on claiming more and more young lives. The city alderman, who monitors Toronto’s drug problem, Joe Cressy, was asked to comment and said, “This crisis is at the stage where people doing recreational drugs are at extreme risk of a fatal overdose. The woman who died was 24 years old. You wonder what her future might have been had she lived.”

       A few weeks ago, a young woman, was seated at the wheel of her car in a parking lot in another city overdosing on heroin or fentanyl. She went unconscious. Firefighters came but could do nothing. Suddenly paramedics arrived, one slipping a needle in her arm, injecting a drug called Naloxone. Within a minute she opened her eyes and the paramedics whisked her off to a hospital. Naloxone saved her. The question now is: are the paramedics all over Canada, well supplied with Naloxone and how to use it. It’s a national public issue. We all have to pitch in — however complex the problem is.       

    Canada’s addiction situation is dreadful, in fact beyond dreadful. Here’s the situation in just three provinces: British Columbia had 154 drug deaths between 2012 and 2014; Ontario had 466 between 2009 and 2013; the Maritimes registered in that same time, 24 deaths.  For a time Naloxone was not available but, within a few months, by June 2016, it was free at pharmacies without a prescription. The province’s health minister, physician Eric Hoskins, stressed that the Ontario government took the issue very seriously and will do all it can to help people get off the addiction. That is an enormous challenge. Just consider this statement from the province’s ministry of health: “In 2014 over 700 people died in Ontario from opioid related causes, a 266 percent increase over 2002.”   

       I have no doubt as to Dr. Hoskin’s intelligence and judgement. However, the task of preventing addictions coast to coast is formidable. Take as an example, a reference from just one province, British Columbia, where an organization called Recovery has examined the national drug crisis and says this: “In a country with a population of about 35.16 million people, 47,000 Canadians die of issues related to substance abuse every year, according to the British Columbia Health Officer’s Council.”  Obviously that’s dreadful. But in Canada’s decent value system the current approach to drug addiction is a positive strategy. Canada has recognized the reality: drug use is not going to ease by punitive strategies. Instead the country is going to use a unique approach, providing a careful source of the drug, and eliminate thereby the threat of more and more availability of street drugs.

      The fact we face is this: drug addicts can’t be “cured” but they can be “managed.” Probably most Canadians would assume that the answer to the entire problem is to increase policing both those who sell and those who use. The problem is that this approach has been used for decades if not centuries and has not worked. The proof?  Those 47,000 who died.  It’s been that way for many years. So, the federal government is seeking a fresh, unique and we hope, effective approach. One of the organizations that deals with the problem offers this explanation for those who doubt the fresh approach: “Traditional understandings of drug use and prevention have centered around discouraging use by punishing drug users, and educating people in ways that stigmatize users so experimentation would be discouraged…. Sometimes these punitive methods may even end up being harmful by forcing drug users to hide their addictions rather than seek help,” says the BC Health Council.   Hence in cities across the country, drugs, which you and I don’t approve of, will be carefully sold to current users.

    On the surface, it appears to being doing a favor for the drug users. But the national action plan is addressing us all:  the aged, the mothers, the fathers, the laborers and the professionals. Some observers say the mothers and fathers, may well worry over this strategy. But government information units will, coast to coast, also make public the dangers of the substance use. Along with this, the various provincial governments are to play their part by clearly and, we hope, effectively, make known the fact that drugs available through illegal suppliers are of great risk and thereby to be bypassed.

      In general, given the failure of past strategies, this carefully crafted drug practice may serve us well. But truly, we don’t know and a lot of us will be wary. Over the years to come, we will be witness to a carefully crafted practice, one that is filled with hope and optimism. Obviously it is not without risks and along with the risks come costs. But, at this crossroad we have to trust the wisdom of our governments. We should. After all, I just remembered what a wise man once said, “The biggest risk is not taking a risk.”

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