How Ignorance Is Making the Overdose Crisis Worse

Only a quarter of Canadians know how to spot the signs of an overdose.
January 10, 2018, 9:38pm
People who use drugs attend an overdose response class in Vancouver. Photo by Jackie Dives

Despite all the headlines about fentanyl, some Canadians still don’t really know what they’re doing or how to help in the case of an overdose, according to new Statistics Canada data.

Even though it’s predicted that 4,000 people in Canada died from opioid overdoses in 2017, only just over a quarter of Canadians know the signs of an overdose. Even less (seven percent) know how to get and use the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. The “Opioid Awareness” survey these results draw from was conducted in November and December 2017.

And though we don’t know why there is still so much ignorance, certainly stigma surrounding drugs and people who use them—which exists in societies with prohibitionist drug policy, such as Canada—can’t help.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report entitled "The World Drug Perception Problem” on Wednesday that highlights the immense issue with stigma of drug use around the world. The report is presented by a number of global leaders and warns of the “vicious cycle” between the perception of people who use drugs and failed drug policy.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is a panel of world leaders and intellectuals based in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Under a prohibitionist regime, a person who uses drugs is engaging in an act that is illegal, which increases stigma,” part of the report says. “This makes it even easier to discriminate against people who use drugs, and enables policies that treat people who use drugs as sub-humans, non-citizens, and scapegoats for wider societal problems.”

Though cannabis will be legal this year in Canada, which the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report points to as a “change in perception,” opioid-related deaths in the country continue to soar. When called out by a Toronto frontline worker, Zoë Dodd, on government inaction on the opioid crisis last year at a VICE talk, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said he was “not there yet” when it came to alternative drug policy such as decriminalization.

Sir Nick Craig, former UK Deputy Prime Minister and one of the presenters of the Global Commission report, said in a press release, “Current drug policies are all too often based on perceptions and passionate beliefs, not facts… Those who do develop problems [with drugs] need our help, not the threat of criminal punishment.”

Awareness in Canada of the country’s overdose crisis, at least, seems to be on the uptick, despite its prime minister’s current stance on drug policy. Statistics Canada showed that, overall, 77 percent of Canadians are aware of “the opioid issue.” However, 36 percent of those surveyed said would not want family or friends to know if they were using opioids without a prescription; 14 percent said even with a prescription they wouldn’t want people to know.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy report outlines how media also contributes to public perception of drug use. “Two narratives of drugs and people who use them have been dominant: one links drugs and crime, the other suggests that the devastating consequences of drug use on an individual are inevitable,” the report reads.

The report also calls out of the false narrative of “moral failing” surrounding drug use—assumptions that a person who uses drugs is “weak” or “immoral.” The reality of drugs, it claims, is that people use them for a number of reasons: “youthful experimentation, pursuit of pleasure, socializing, enhancing performance, and self-medication to manage moods and physical pain.”

The Global Commission recommends a number of measures that could be taken to counter prejudices about people who use drugs, including: that policy makers try to change the perception surrounding people who use drugs by providing consistent and reliable info; that leaders “live up to their responsibility in shaping public opinions and perceptions,” such as promoting destigmatized language; and that citizens take part in debate and activism. It also calls for the end of harassment of people who use drugs by law enforcement, such as unwarranted searches and racial profiling.

Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and chair of the Global Commission, said that we must stop stigmatizing people who use drugs because it leads to discrimination and “supports repressive drug laws” based on the aforementioned moral judgment.

“Whether you think of someone and refer to them as a person who uses drugs or a ‘junkie’ makes a huge difference in how you and society will treat them,” Dreifuss said. “This vicious cycle, which has been fueled for decades, must be broken. Opinion leaders should live up to their responsibility in shaping public perceptions on drugs, promoting non-discriminatory language, and respecting the full rights of all citizens.”