Farhang: Dehumanizing drug users solves nothing, so stop it

Sowing fear doesn’t help either. The City of Ottawa needs to use creative and proven methods to help people and keep them safe.

Article content

In the wake of recent debates about the presence of drug paraphernalia in public spaces in Ottawa, it is disheartening to see calls for stigmatizing “prevention” strategies, including fear-based awareness campaigns.

To address concerns about drug use and homelessness expressed by some residents, Coun. Stéphanie Plante (District 12 Rideau-Vanier) was recently quoted in the Citizen as saying that we should “go to high schools and scare the kids” and take young people to tour camps and safe consumption sites. This is reminiscent of the Scared straight runs in Vancouver and raises serious questions about those who have the power to effect change.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

These types of proposals have also encouraged others to vilify, shame and stigmatize people who use drugs. All of this distracts from the work already being done in the community to keep people safe and alive, and gives legitimacy to misinformation and ineffective solutions to various social problems. This harmful rhetoric not only fails to provide safer outcomes for drug users and the communities in which they live, it also exacerbates the potential for harm for everyone.

The underlying problem here is a deeply ingrained culture of carcerality and coercion, where intimidation and scaremongering are considered acceptable means of forcing behavioral change. “Meeting people where they are” should not mean that the care and support people need is dependent on them changing their behaviour. An attempt at control, disguised as care, was the basis of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) introduced in 1983, which we now know It does not work prevent or reduce harms associated with drug use among children.

We know that, like the DARE program, drug prohibition and criminalization undermine the safety of drug users. None of these approaches addresses the supply of toxic drugs which has led to poisoning and deaths of people who use drugs.

Advertisement 3

Article content

We must recognize that the relationships people have with drugs are complex and range from recreational or experimental use to self-medication or escapism. Awareness of this complexity moves us away from campaigns with catchy slogans like “one pill can kill” or “just say no” toward more holistic and compassionate approaches to drug use, based on harm reduction.

So what is meant by harm reduction and what works to keep people safe and alive?

There are practical things we can do to reduce the harm caused by banning the use and sharing of substances. These include giving all drug users, including young people, access to education on harm reduction techniques; a regulated and secure supply; clean tools and spaces to be used; and access to treatment (if they consent). However, harm reduction is not just about drug use; It is also about addressing broader systemic issues that produce so many different harmful and often traumatic outcomes.

In the book Saving our own lives, Shira Hassan draws on years of experience to highlight that liberatory harm reduction is best understood as a policy framework. This is an approach that communities use to resist and navigate the results of systemic harm and neglect. Rather than treating harm reduction as a rigid framework, where some aspects are cherry-picked or rejected entirely, this approach encourages us to collectively ignite our creativity to create better conditions and outcomes for everyone in our communities.

Advertisement 4

Article content

I hope we can prioritize creativity and compassion over coercion, and focus on building supportive, life-affirming communities that respect privacy, dignity, and humanity. Let’s not try to scare children or treat people in camps and safe consumption sites as spectacles.

We need creative solutions and a commitment to reducing harm, not dehumanizing scare tactics.

Farnaz Farhang (MA Criminology) is an Ottawa resident, researcher and advocate.

Recommended by Editorial

Article content

Leave a Comment