Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. What a strange but necessary day. It’s a day to try to gather the grief and outrage of communities around the world. And it’s about awareness. Awareness focusses the light on the fact that there remains a massive divide among us- a divide of stigma, shame, and ultimately death. It’s death by policy, a life taking drug policy long known to be ineffective, and death by shunning. Any of the stigmatizing titles we have depended on- drug user, substance dependent, addict, all point toward a great unwelcomed segment of our communities that gloss over deeper truths. The truths are that some substances are more acceptable than others, some levels of consumption (of those same substances) are more acceptable than others, that there are contexts where those same substances are used (such as when they are prescribed) that are more acceptable than others, and that access to necessary and fundamental care- medical, social, but mainly basic human needs such as housing and food, are more accessible for some than others.
There are communities that carry this weight in a grossly imbalanced way. This is a part of the injustice- communities marked by poverty, mental and physical illness, and racial marginalization have been most likely to acquaint themselves with the grief and trauma of this long drawn out crisis. Awareness brings these experiences into the light. I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario with a population roughly the same as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where I currently live and work. If that community experienced years of hundreds of deaths annually as a result of a common experience and failure we would certainly memorialize that experience. We would do everything in our power to change it- and we would not only remember but insist on not forgetting, in case we were to experience that same threat in our community ever again.
A Day of Awareness is a small part of the effort to bring this light forward. We have the passion and creativity to solve this crisis. So many people have readily engaged to provide overdose prevention services, harm reduction services and education, and advocacy and resource building. This work is made especially difficult in a culture of indifference and resistance to the message. Herein lies the problematic mythology- overdose deaths aren’t only a Downtown Eastside issue. They’re not limited to those experiencing poverty and mental illness. Overdose deaths are in fact widespread in many families and communities, hidden because of the stigma, shame, and threat implied by the current public discourse. We need new conversations and approaches simply because the existing approach has failed and become increasingly lethal.
Decriminalization, access to safe supply, increasing overdose prevention services, and supporting and listening to the people who provide those services is the way forward. If you know a frontline harm reduction worker- take a second to thank them