‘New Perspectives on Illegal Drugs’ was the topic of interest at this year’s Alberta Harm Reduction Conference held last week in Edmonton.
Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, executive director of Central Alberta AIDS Network Society (CAANS), attended the conference along with 11 staff members, three volunteers, and three community members with a history of drug use and members from at least five other Red Deer agencies.
Vanderschaeghe explained highlights of the conference, which explored viewpoints on the legality of drugs.
“The logic of what drugs are legal and what drugs are illegal is fundamentally flawed,” stated Vanderschaeghe. “We have some drugs like sugar and alcohol that are legal and cause substantial health issues.
“Then you have drugs that cause very little damage that are illegal.”
She used crystal methamphetamine as an example, explaining the drug – which is commercially produced – will be illegal if created in a home, however when created by pharmacists in a lab, it will then be marketed to children to reduce behavioural issues in the form of Adderall.
While traditionally harm reduction has been related to HIV and Hepatitis C – over the years issues such as Fentanyl use, overdose prevention, criminalization and legalization of substances, sex work laws, access to methadone, pregnancy and drug use and the education of youth have become increasingly important issues in harm reduction agencies across the province.
While at the conference Vanderschaeghe and her team heard from Dr. Kenneth Tupper from the School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia. One thing that hit home for Vanderschaeghe was when Tupper stated, “Getting police to teach drug education is like getting a nun to teach sex education.”
“He showed that programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) don’t work and that fear-based methods of drug education only perpetuates the notion that only bad people use drugs. He looked into drug education and said that instead of fear we should be using knowledge.
“Teaching from a fear base or from a point where you say that if you use drugs it will screw up your life. When you do drugs and you don’t become addicted right away and the world didn’t end you’re going to think it’s okay and that you were lied to.”
She explained this means harm reduction agencies and health professionals must now start to look into the real reasons why people are addicted to drugs, with statistics showing 80-90% of people who have used illegal drugs are not addicted – why then are the other 10-20% becoming addicted?
“There are receptors in our brain that drugs attach to and make us high – but we don’t all have the same amount of these receptors, so we looked at what are the clinical reasons why some people will get addicted and others won’t?
“Ultimately people use drugs because they feel good – they continue to use drugs because that may be the only feeling good they get.”
The CAANS team also heard from Dr. Carl Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist out of Columbia University, who delved deeply into the roots of addiction.
“Most people think that A+B=C,” said Vanderschaeghe. “You have people using drugs then this is the behaviour you will see, but its actually much deeper than that – you need to look at the dose they are taking, the route of administration, are they smoking or injecting meth, snorting or injecting cocaine, smoking or eating marijuana?
“The user experience is also included in how much are they using, or have they been awake for two days doing it – are you using alone, are you using outside, are you having to hurry because you’re using in a place you shouldn’t be using?
“Using drugs overwhelmingly doesn’t necessarily mean addiction and a lot of times people think that drug users should just quit using drugs but the reality is it’s never that simple, you can’t take away a coping mechanism and not put another in place.”
Vanderschaeghe stated by judging people and making people feel bad about their drug use it is in turn forcing them to lie to you, which would increase the stress around the issue and actually cause them to use more.
“By confronting them then you are forcing them to lie and not share their full life with you because at this point then you are being toxic, so you need to be there to support people,” she said. “Our job as a harm reduction agency is to build relationships so that people trust us and at least there is one person in their world who supports them and won’t nag them – our job is to be there for them.
“We motivate them to be safe around drug use and sexual health, but that comes second to building that trust with our clients.”