The low-barrier modular housing project on Riverside Road, expected to house upwards of 40 people either off the streets or out of shelters.                                Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News

The low-barrier modular housing project on Riverside Road, expected to house upwards of 40 people either off the streets or out of shelters. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News

Overdose Crisis

COLUMN: Make positive change for marginalized groups, not despite them

Drug policies have a long history of at best ignoring and at worst targeting vulnerable communities

“They’re not your average junkies.” “They’re not all addicts.”

The words creep into otherwise well-meaning arguments, betraying a lifelong conditioning in all of us that drug users and those entrenched in poverty are lesser than – worse if they’re both.

Flip sides of the same coin, one statement assumes that drug users not in poverty are more worthy, while the other assumes that homeless who are not drug users are more worthy.

The dialogue is changing; conversations around harm reduction have seen monumental shifts in recent years.

Not long ago, drug decriminalization was merely a pipe dream of fringe activists from the Downtown Eastside – the same activists who had to break laws to save lives, “liberating” clean needles from medical facilities because laws prohibited passing out that essential tool to quell Vancouver’s roaring HIV crisis, once estimated to be six times higher than the national rate.

Now, B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says she’s seeking a “de facto decriminalization of people who use drugs in B.C., recognizing that is one of the huge challenges that is leading to people using street drugs and dying.”

But language like the two quotes up top – ones I’ve heard numerous times in various forms – while well-meaning seem to be missing the point. They often come in the context of supporting homeless housing projects or harm reduction tools like decriminalization.

But here’s the thing: It shouldn’t matter. An individual’s substance use doesn’t matter in the discussion of supports for the homeless. The socioeconomic status of a user is irrelevant to discussions around harm reduction.

It stems from a persistent sense of good and bad that often does more harm than good.

It places people in boxes that leave them with little choice but to fulfill the insidious expectations of society.

While we demonize those who have fallen into chaotic substance use, typically homeless or precariously housed, we tend to see upper- and middle-class drug users – who themselves may be one eviction or job loss from spiraling into that same chaotic substance use – as “weekend warriors” of little concern to The Normals. They may have problems, but at least we can’t see them.

It’s not so dissimilar, if at all, from the racial disparity in how we treat drug use.

A cocaine user is a hey-man-maybe-you-should-take-it-easy problem.

A crack user is an anything-you-say-can-be-used-against-you-in-a-court-of-law problem.

Never mind that crack and cocaine are the same drug, albeit consumed differently, but you can probably guess which is associated more with racial minorities.

North American drug policies have a long history of, at best, ignoring the most vulnerable populations and, at worst, targeting them – our first prohibition law, the Opium Act of 1908, specifically targeted Chinese-Canadians. And those groups have always been overrepresented among the casualties of the drug war.

So, when we finally make a positive change, it should be because of those marginalized communities, not despite them.

Find more of our coverage on the overdose crisis here.

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter


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n Dustin Godfrey is a reporter with the Abbotsford News.

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