The Canadian overdose bodycount and policy lag

Johann Hari speaks at TED.com. Photo by TED.com

Approximately 5000 Canadians died from street drug overdoses in 2018. Journalist Johann Hari says everything you know about drug addiction is wrong.

He’s right.

In a recent Ted Talk, Hari used the Vietnam War as an example of why disconnection and social isolation are the main catalysts for addiction, whether to hard drugs or other negative habit- forming behaviors like pornography consumption or smartphone use. Hari described how 20 per cent of military personnel in Vietnam used hard drugs. When they returned home, most had no withdrawal or need for rehab. The lesson? Drug consumption doesn’t always mean addiction.

According to Hari, isolation, loneliness, disconnection, and drug availability caused by their war experiences resulted in massive drug use among servicepeople. Hari’s disconnection-isolation hypothesis is corroborated by the teachings of Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician in the world-famous drug ghetto of Vancouver’s downtown east-side.

Maté has long advocated for drug addicts in terms of promoting connection, reconnection, socialization, spirituality and harm reduction as mechanisms for healing and prevention. Harm reduction is a constellation of public health policies designed to mitigate the negative impacts of drug addiction and drug related crime. Needle exchange programs, opioid substitution therapy and safe injection sites are examples of such policies.

Maté says the vast majority of hardcore drug addicts are victims of childhood abuse, neglect and isolation. He speaks of a cause and effect relationship between his own spending addiction and childhood separation from his parents during World War II. He speaks of high addiction rates among Indigenous Peoples in the aftermath of the Canadian residential school system.

Some, particularly in law enforcement, say the disconnection-isolation hypothesis, and its corresponding system of harm reduction, is antithetical to law and order. They argue that criminalization and incarceration are the best methods for preventing addiction and recidivism.

Maté and Hari might argue that trying to help drug addicts with jail-time is not unlike trying to haul water in a wicker basket. The water just ends up back on the ground. The basket breaks down. The effort is unending.

Harm reduction seems to be gaining popularity around the world. Portugal has embraced the model, along with after-care and social re-integration, resulting a massive decrease in overall drug taking. Will Canada align itself with Portugal?

It must. As sure as coastal fog fills the needle-infested back alleys of East Vancouver.