CHAL­LENGE: AC­CESS TO TREAT­MENT AND RE­DUC­ING STIGMA SO­LU­TION: DE­CRIM­I­NAL­IZA­TION

The Southern Gazette - - Column -

Scott Bern­stein, di­rec­tor of pol­icy with the Cana­dian Drug Pol­icy Coali­tion, says he is aware of ju­ris­dic­tions such as the one in Por­tu­gal which have de­crim­i­nal­ized opi­oid use, but says he doesn’t ex­pect to see an ex­act replica un­veiled in Canada any­time soon.

“Ul­ti­mately, we’re choos­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem not through a health-based an­gle but rather a crim­i­nal jus­tice one,” he said, adding that when we crim­i­nal­ize peo­ple for us­ing drugs or sell­ing small amounts to fund their own ad­dic­tion in Canada, barriers to help are cre­ated.

How­ever, rather than repli­cate what Por­tu­gal is do­ing, Bern­stein sug­gests Canada is bet­ter off to re­view their model and learn from it.

He said re­mov­ing the crim­i­nal law is help­ful, but a sec­ond step could see more sup­port­ive ser­vices, ex­panded treat­ment and ed­u­ca­tion.

What is needed is a Cana­dian-tai­lored pro­gram that takes ad­van­tage of and builds on our public health sys­tem and other ser­vices, he said.

Chris­tine Porter, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ally Cen­tre in Syd­ney, N.S., feels the Por­tu­gal model is a per­fect fit for Canada. She likes that the fo­cus there is not on jus­tice for the per­son who has only small amount of drugs in their pos­ses­sion, but in­stead is on help­ing treat their ad­dic­tion.

In this war against drugs, Porter be­lieves we are fail­ing in At­lantic Canada and that in or­der to move for­ward we have to look at sub­stance dis­or­ders as a health and so­cial is­sue. Por­tu­gal looks at a drug user as a pa­tient that is sick, she said, adding “That’s how we see it here (at the Ally Cen­tre)… I think Por­tu­gal got it right.”

WHAT IM­PACT COULD IT HAVE?

Porter be­lieves a move to de­crim­i­nal­ize opi­oid ad­dic­tion in Canada could go much fur­ther than an op­por­tu­nity for bet­ter ac­cess to treat­ment. She says it would also im­pact the im­pres­sions of the wider com­mu­nity – those di­rectly af­fected by ad­dic­tion and those who do not have a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the is­sue – be­cause it could al­le­vi­ate some of the stigma as­so­ci­ated with ad­di­tion.

While she be­lieves stigma is get­ting bet­ter, she says this could be a real game changer.

“Some say (stigma) is worse,” she said. “It all de­pends where you’re sit­ting.”

Work­ing closely with in­di­vid­u­als with sub­stance use dis­or­ders, she and other staff at the Ally Cen­tre sto­ries daily about how peo­ple liv­ing with ad­dic­tion are not al­lowed in cer­tain stores or are stared at in treat­ment line ups.

In these cases, she says it can be hard to be­lieve the stigma has been lifted much.

How­ever, see­ing re­ac­tions and what’s hap­pen­ing around the opi­oid cri­sis fed­er­ally and provin­cially, Porter says those in power are rec­og­niz­ing more and more that stigma kills and are tak­ing a stance to­wards it, Porter said.

“We need the broader com­mu­nity to hear that. That’s where these peo­ple live. That’s who needs to be more com­pas­sion­ate and un­der­stand­ing.”

Bern­stein agrees that any step to­wards de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing in­di­vid­u­als who are liv­ing with ad­dic­tion would help with the chal­lenge of stigma.

Once a per­son iden­ti­fies some­one as a drug user, he says their per­cep­tion of that per­son changes. It comes to a point where in some cases a phar­ma­cist or doc­tor will ques­tion if they want that client or pa­tient, he said.

“You la­bel them a crim­i­nal and run them through a sys­tem moral based.”

Bern­stein said there’s also some stigma in po­lice de­part­ments and so­cial ser­vices which need to be ad­dressed.

“My thought is we could de­crim­i­nal­ize to solve that,” he said.

— Sharon Mont­gomery-Dupe

The ideas we’ve ex­plored over the last four weeks have shone a light on the work that's mak­ing a

dif­fer­ence in our com­mu­ni­ties. From de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion to

ef­fec­tive harm re­duc­tion pro­grams

like P.E.I.'s trail­blaz­ing hep­ati­tis C strat­egy, so­lu­tions

with im­pact are bub­bling to the top. Read on to ex­plore these ex­am­ples of in­no­va­tive ideas from our own

back­yard.

Chris­tine Porter

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