How to Laugh at an Opioid Crisis

If you ask comedian and former addict Mark Hughes, everyone should be thinking and talking about fentanyl—not just users and Downtown Eastside activists.

by Sarah Berman
18 December 2016, 9:01am

Photo by Jackie Dives

Mark Hughes photo by Jackie Dives

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

There is no easy way to bring up Vancouver's opioid crisis in casual conversation, but for comedian Mark Hughes, that's exactly the point, and why more of us need to do it. For too long, the problem has wandered between various levels of government, like a giant Sisyphean rock pushed only by the people who see it every day—either as users or frontline workers.

To bring the overdose epidemic outside the world of health care and advocacy, Hughes decided to bring together a bunch of professionally funny friends to raise money for a community-led overdose prevention tent in the city's hard-hit Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The "Safe Injection Comedy" show came to Vancouver's Rickshaw Theatre exactly one week before the deadliest night we've seen in British Columbia so far.

VICE caught up with Mark before and after the show, to talk about his personal struggle with heroin addiction, and how shining light on the issue has already changed the way people think about "junkies."

VICE: Why did you want to do this comedy show? What's your story?
Mark Hughes: I'm a recovering heroin addict myself, and I was down on the Downtown Eastside as a teenager. I spent a lot of years here. I've been clean for a long time now, but I'm only clean for today. Who knows where my life could go? That could be me out there, maybe overdosing every time I'm about to get high. So I thought I've got to be able to respond to this, because it wouldn't sit right with me to not help out... I'm a comic who knows how to produce shows, so I thought if I could put on a show that could respond to the opioid crisis, that's using my skills for the forces of good, rather than evil. It also balances out karma for all the people I offend with my act.

Is the opioid crisis impacting the people in your life?
Absolutely. I know 15 people in the last two months that have died. Because I'm in recovery, a lot of people I know end up relapsing sometimes. Now if somebody has a bad night and says "Dammit, fuck I gotta get high," they could be dead. And literally it's 50/50.

That's super heavy. So how do personally make light or laugh at this stuff?
Well I always laugh at everything. I've had a fucked up life. My head's a war zone at the best of times. Humour for me is like a release valve, it lets the steam out. Laughter takes the edge off. This is a sad time down here right now. Lots of people are dying and lots of family members are left behind, so jokes can help... For a lot of people that I know who have spent time down here, laughter was all we had when we weren't getting high. It doesn't cost any money, it's cheaper than heroin.

Read More: Supervised Injection Sites Are On the Way

The event raised a few thousand dollars for the Overdose Prevention Society. Are you happy with that? What was reaction like?
I feel really good about it, glad we were able to raise that much, glad people rallied together to support it. It was cool to be part of something like that, to go down and drop the money off down at the Downtown Eastside market. There were a few negative reactions, like when the online stuff came out—"Why are you helping junkies? Fuck them!"—that kind of thing. That happens anytime the subject of drug addicts and money and overdose comes up, but not as much as it used to. Those people aren't the majority anymore, but it's a not-tiny minority—like maybe 30 percent of people. They'll say ODs are just the problem sorting itself out, or that addicts are just a burden on the taxpayer.

Just this week the Downtown Eastside saw it's deadliest night, with nine killed. How did you take that news?
I was not shocked. Even though the government brought in its own overdose prevention sites, it's still not getting any easier. It just goes to show that this isn't an easy problem to solve, I think they could even throw tons of money at it, and it wouldn't solve it or make it go away.

Is there something you think needs to happen?
I'm going to pick on Vancouver here. This city is super desirable—people come from all over the world to live here, and I see a lot of vanity and shallowness everywhere except the Downtown Eastside. There's a type that won't go down there, who would pretend it doesn't exist. To pretend it's not there, I think, is super irresponsible. If you want to live here and only talk about craft beer and the latest indie rock band, that's not enough. Not to get too hippy about this stuff, but society is a living organism, we're all connected, so we all have [a responsibility].

Are we going to see another comedy night like this in Vancouver?
I'll definitely do it again. It's something I think I need to do, even if it doesn't go to the Overdose Prevention Society. It will probably be directed in that area.

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