As drug use deaths across Canada create a nationwide opioid crisis, many Canadians still don’t know how to help in the case of an overdose. In its “Opioid Awareness” survey, Statistics Canada has reported that while 4,000 people in Canada died of opioid overdose in 2017, only 25% knew how to identify the signs of an overdose, and only 7% knew where to find and how to use naloxone, the antidote.
In part, stigma around drugs and drug users is being blamed for this ignorance, as evidenced in the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s “The World Drug Perception Problem,” which warns that the negative perception of drug users has led to a “vicious cycle” of failed drug policy.
“Whether you think of someone and refer to them as a person who uses drugs or a ‘junkie’ makes a huge difference in how you and society will treat them, this vicious cycle, which has been fuelled for decades, must be broken. Opinion leaders should live up to their responsibility in shaping public perceptions on drugs, promoting non-discriminatory language, and respecting the full rights of all citizens.” Ruth Dreifuss, chair of Global Commission
The report outlines the media’s role in perpetuating this cycle, and states, “Two narratives of drugs and people who use them have been dominant: one links drugs and crime, the other suggests that the devastating consequences of drug use on an individual are inevitable.”
Statistics Canada shows that 77% percent of Canadians are aware of “the opioid issue,” but 36% of the survey participants admitted that they wouldn’t want anyone to know if they were using opioids that weren’t prescribed, and 14% said that even with a prescription, they’d keep their opioid use a secret.
Part of the stigma detailed in the Commission’s report is the perceived “moral failing” around drug use, and the report counters this by explaining the myriad of reasons for drug use, including “youthful experimentation, pursuit of pleasure, socializing, enhancing performance, and self-medication to manage moods and physical pain.”
“Under a prohibitionist regime, a person who uses drugs is engaging in an act that is illegal, which increases stigma,” part of the report says. “This makes it even easier to discriminate against people who use drugs, and enables policies that treat people who use drugs as sub-humans, non-citizens, and scapegoats for wider societal problems.”
Though Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is not yet ready to decriminalize opioids, Sir Nick Craig, former UK Deputy Prime Minister and one of the presenters of the Global Commission’s report, disagrees. “Current drug policies are all too often based on perceptions and passionate beliefs, not facts,” he says. “Those who do develop problems [with drugs] need our help, not the threat of criminal punishment.”
Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and chair of the Global Commission, has stated that actively preventing stigma around drug use is imperative as it leads to discrimination and “supports repressive drug laws.”