It’s wrong to call the opiate crisis an “epidemic.” Ucontrollable spreads of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria or Zika are epidemics. Humans can do a thing or two to slow down the pace of contagion, and it’s possible (if not a duty) to treat the afflicted, but you ultimately can’t tell a virus what to do.
Opiate overdoses are closer kin to drunk-driving fatalities or the water crisis in Flint. Human behavior is in charge, not the dice game at play when a virus spreads or jumps from pigs, birds and other animals to human beings. Humans created the conditions that draw people, en masse, to fatal amounts of heroin or fentanyl. And humans have all the tools necessary to destroy those conditions.
Solving the opiate crisis will require treating it like the chronic condition that it is.
That will require some significant long-term changes—in healthcare and in the economy. In the short term, however, chemical aids to keep people alive abound.
You can give someone in the throes of an overdose a shot of Narcan. You can give them a testing strip, so that the next time they buy a bag of fentanyl-laced heroin, they won’t take a fatal dose. And as some activists in Vancouver—where deaths from overdoses in 2017 are on pace to double from last year’s ghastly tally, a crisis-level situation if there ever was one—are demonstrating, to get someone off of opiates entirely, you can try giving them weed.
The Georgia Straight has been all over the story of Sarah Blyth and her Overdose Prevention Society.
Blyth’s High Hopes Foundation has been doling out “natural alternatives” to hard drugs. Blyth wasn’t herself sold on cannabis’s value as a replacement drug, but after reading a study (from the U.S., of all places) that showed a 33 percent drop in overdose deaths where legal cannabis was available, she gave it a shot.
And lo! It worked.
“I’ve had lots of people come to me with all kinds of different alternatives [to hard drugs], and at no point did I ever set out saying, ‘Wahoo, cannabis!’ ” she told the Straight in July, as a volunteer was dropping off some fresh-baked cannabis-infused muffins. “But with the evidence and the proof that I’m seeing, you can’t really deny it.”
“If you can provide a cheap medicinal option, like one of these muffins for $2 instead of crack or cocaine, there’s a lot of people down here who will take it because it gives them enough of a body high to hold off on other drugs for a while,” she added.
On at least one occasion, police have interrupted the hand-out, though without any American-style raids or arrests.
Undeterred, last week, Blyth announced the launch of the High Hopes Foundation, a sort of daily farmer’s market but for hard-drug users looking to get off of dope. At the volunteer-staffed market, you can get bags of supposed heroin tested for fentanyl, you can get a cannabis edible for $2—or an eighth for $20!—or a referral to a detox center.
“Some people may come to us and they may say they want to get sober, so we can give them options to detox, and we know all of the different places in the neighborhood that help people,” Blyth told the Straight. “Some people just can’t get off drugs—but they might be able to smoke marijuana, so we’re going to give them the best product that we can possibly get to help get them off of harder drugs, to give them some options so they don’t die at home alone.”
Vancouver, note, has been on the forefront of realistic harm-reduction strategies to combat overdose deaths for years.
Vancouver has the world’s first safe-injection site, where intravenous drug users can use in a clean and safe environment with the supervision of a healthcare professional—who can, in turn, refer the user to other healthcare options, up to and including treatment.
Medical marijuana is legal in Canada but has to be sourced from one of the country’s federally licensed cannabis companies. That hasn’t stopped dispensaries from popping up in major cities including Toronto and Vancouver—which in turn have been busted by police.
For their part, Vancouver police say that they’re supporting Blyth’s mission, though it’s unclear why on several occasions they’ve asked the market to pop down and move along. Still, that chilled-out, very Canadian approach is almost unimaginable in the U.S., where the opiate crisis is raging.
That war is over, if we want it. We have the ability.