While there are no easy answers when it comes to solving British Columbia’s opioid crisis — renowned researcher Cheyenne Johnson says much can be done to improve the situation if we’re willing to change our approach.
Johnson, who is the Director of Clinical Activities and Development at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse, spoke candidly on the subject during a recent lecture she gave at Okanagan College in Vernon, entitled Beyond opioids: the overdose crisis—how did we get here?
Approximately 60 tickets were pre-sold, and more were sold at the door for tonight's presentation, Beyond Opioids: the Provincial Overdose Crisis – how did we get here? at #OkanaganCollege in Vernon. The event is cosponsored by the #okanagansciencentre. Proceeds from ticket sales will go to support the Science Centre's Speaker Series
“We’re in a crisis that is not being treated like one,” Johnson told the audience of nearly 100.
Since 2016, she said there have been a total of almost 2,200 overdose deaths. In 2017 alone, she added, there were over 1,200 confirmed overdose deaths.
In her 1.5-hour talk, the North Okanagan-raised researcher stressed that shifting attitudes toward addiction, recovery and policy reform are the key to progress.
Citing Portugal’s approach to drug policy as a key example, Johnson said during the 1980s and 90s, the European country was ravaged by a heroin epidemic that affected approximately one per cent of the country’s entire population.
In 2001 Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.
Over time, according to the 2016 United Nations World Drug report, the drug crisis in Portugal stabilized to the point where they have the one of the lowest fatal overdose rates in the world.
While deemed a radical approach by some, Johnson said Portugal’s multi-faceted model is gaining popularity among Canada’s health professionals, and argues that a similar change could be critical to making headway in the opioid crisis in Canada.
Policy changes, she added, need to go hand in hand with changing the culture of a country towards drug use.
“What decriminalization did in Portugal was allow people to come out of the shadows and seek help,” she said.
Ultimately, she explained, it was part of a much broader strategy that includes changing the language we use when talking about addiction.
Research, she said, has found that people with substance use disorders are viewed more negatively than people with other mental illness or physical illness and the language we use about addiction can contribute to the stigma.
“As a society in the way that we talk about addiction and substance abuse, we kind of use it colloquially and joke about it sometimes,” she said.
Referencing her own Instagram feed, Johnson said she searched the term “addiction” and found 52 different hashtags related to it.
“I found things like ‘addicted to coupons’ or ‘addicted to selfies’ or ‘addicted to shopping.’ There were, in my opinion, some really obscene images surrounding people being addicted to fashion or addicted to a certain label.”
It’s not only the term, addiction, Johnson said, it’s also the casual use of harmful terms like ‘druggie’ or ‘junkie,’ that’s prevalent in the way we talk about people that over use drugs.
In regard to tackling B.C.’s ongoing crisis, Johnson stressed the importance of “having more tools in our collective tool kit,” supporting people at risk of overdose, addressing the unsafe drug supply, expanding harm reduction services and increasing the availability of naloxone.
Building safe injection sites, she added, is in “irrefutable” necessity.
While there are currently no safe injection sites in Vernon, Interior Health announced last month that they would be launching Community Action Teams (CATS) who will be tasked with spearheading local coordination and communication to respond to the needs of those most at risk of overdose.