I remember the first time that I saw people injecting drugs. I had just arrived in Vancouver to lead a research project in HIV prevention in the infamous Downtown East Side. It was in the lobby of the Portland Hotel, a supportive housing project that gave rooms to the most marginalized people in the city, the so-called "difficult to house." I'll never forget the young woman standing on the stairs repeatedly jabbing herself with a needle, and screaming, "I can't find a vein," as blood splattered on the wall.
In response to the desperate state of affairs, the drug use, the poverty, the violence, the soaring rates of HIV, Vancouver declared a public health emergency in 1997. This opened the door to expanding harm reduction services, distributing more needles, increasing access to methadone, and, finally, opening a supervised injection site. Things that make injecting drugs less hazardous. But today, 20 years later, harm reduction is still viewed as some sort of radical concept. In some places, it's still illegal to carry a clean needle. Drug users are far more likely to be arrested than to be offered methadone therapy. Recent proposals for supervised injection sites in cities like Seattle, Baltimore and New York have been met with stiff opposition: opposition that goes against everything we know about addiction.
Why is that? Why are we still stuck on the idea that the only option is to stop using—that any drug use will not be tolerated? Why do we ignore countless personal stories and overwhelming scientific evidence that harm reduction works? Critics say that harm reduction doesn't stop people from using illegal drugs. Well, actually, that is the whole point. After every criminal and societal sanction that we can come up with, people still use drugs, and far too many die. Critics also say that we are giving up on people by not focusing our attention on treatment and recovery. In fact, it is just the opposite. We are not giving up on people. We know that if recovery is ever going to happen we must keep people alive. Offering someone a clean needle or a safe place to inject is the first step to treatment and recovery. Critics also claim that harm reduction gives the wrong message to our children about drug users. The last time I looked, these drug users are our children. The message of harm reduction is that while drugs can hurt you, we still must reach out to people who are addicted. A needle exchange is not an advertisement for drug use. Neither is a methadone clinic or a supervised injection site. What you see there are people sick and hurting, hardly an endorsement for drug use.
Let's take supervised injection sites, for example. Probably the most misunderstood health intervention ever. All we are saying is that allowing people to inject in a clean, dry space with fresh needles, surrounded by people who care is a lot better than injecting in a dingy alley, sharing contaminated needles and hiding out from police. It's better for everybody. The first supervised injection site in Vancouver was at 327 Carol Street, a narrow room with a concrete floor, a few chairs and a box of clean needles. The police would often lock it down, but somehow it always mysteriously reopened, often with the aid of a crowbar. I would go down there some evenings to provide medical care for people who were injecting drugs. I was always struck with the commitment and compassion of the people who operated and used the site. No judgment, no hassles, no fear, lots of profound conversation. I learned that despite unimaginable trauma, physical pain and mental illness, that everyone there thought that things would get better. Most were convinced that, someday, they'd stop using drugs altogether. That room was the forerunner to North America's first government-sanctioned supervised injection site, called INSITE. It opened in September of 2003 as a three-year research project. The conservative government was intent on closing it down at the end of the study. After eight years, the battle to close INSITE went all the way up to Canada's Supreme Court. It pitted the government of Canada against two people with a long history of drug use who knew the benefits of INSITE firsthand: Dean Wilson and Shelley Tomic. The court ruled in favor of keeping INSITE open by nine to zero. The justices were scathing in their response to the government's case. And I quote: "The effect of denying the services of INSITE to the population that it serves and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics."
This was a hopeful moment for harm reduction. Yet, despite this strong message from the Supreme Court, it was, until very recently, impossible to open up any new sites in Canada. There was one interesting thing that happened in December of 2016, when due to the overdose crisis, the government of British Columbia allowed the opening of overdose prevention sites. Essentially ignoring the federal approval process, community groups opened up about 22 of these de facto illegal supervised injection sites across the province. Virtually overnight, thousands of people could use drugs under supervision. Hundreds of overdoses were reversed by Naloxone, and nobody died. In fact, this is what's happened at INSITE over the last 14 years: 75,000 different individuals have injected illegal drugs more than three and a half million times, and not one person has died. Nobody has ever died at INSITE.
So there you have it. We have scientific evidence and successes from needle exchanges methadone and supervised injection sites. These are common-sense, compassionate approaches to drug use that improve health, bring connection and greatly reduce suffering and death. So why haven't harm reduction programs taken off? Why do we still think that drug use is law enforcement issue? Our disdain for drugs and drug users goes very deep. We are bombarded with images and media stories about the horrible impacts of drugs. We have stigmatized entire communities. We applaud military-inspired operations that bring down drug dealers. And we appear unfazed by building more jails to incarcerate people whose only crime is using drugs.
Virtually millions of people are caught up in a hopeless cycle of incarceration, violence and poverty that has been created by our drug laws and not the drugs themselves. How do I explain to people that drug users deserve care and support and the freedom to live their lives when all we see are images of guns and handcuffs and jail cells? Let's be clear: criminalization is just a way to institutionalize stigma. Making drugs illegal does nothing to stop people from using them. Our paralysis to see things differently is also based on an entirely false narrative about drug use. We have been led to believe that drug users are irresponsible people who just want to get high, and then through their own personal failings spiral down into a life of crime and poverty, losing their jobs, their families and, ultimately, their lives. In reality, most drug users have a story, whether it's childhood trauma, sexual abuse, mental illness or a personal tragedy. The drugs are used to numb the pain. We must understand that as we approach people with so much trauma.
At its core, our drug policies are really a social justice issue. While the media may focus on overdose deaths like Prince and Michael Jackson, the majority of the suffering happens to people who are living on the margins, the poor and the dispossessed. They don't vote; they are often alone. They are society's disposable people. Even within health care, drug use is highly stigmatized. People using drugs avoid the health care system. They know that once engaged in clinical care or admitted to hospital, they will be treated poorly. And their supply line, be it heroin, cocaine or crystal meth will be interrupted. On top of that, they will be asked a barrage of questions that only serve to expose their losses and shame. "What drugs do you use?" "How long have you been living on the street?" "Where are your children?" "When were you last in jail?" Essentially: "Why the hell don't you stop using drugs?"
In fact, our entire medical approach to drug use is upside down. For some reason, we have decided that abstinence is the best way to treat this. If you're lucky enough, you may get into a detox program. If you live in a community with Suboxone or methadone, you may get on a substitution program. Hardly ever would we offer people what they desperately need to survive: a safe prescription for opioids. Starting with abstinence is like asking a new diabetic to quit sugar or a severe asthmatic to start running marathons or a depressed person to just be happy. For any other medical condition, we would never start with the most extreme option. What makes us think that strategy would work for something as complex as addiction?
While unintentional overdoses are not new, the scale of the current crisis is unprecedented. The Center for Disease Control estimated that 64,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016, far exceeding car crashes or homicides. Drug-related mortality is now the leading cause of death among men and women between 20 and 50 years old in North America. Think about that. How did we get to this point, and why now? There is a kind of perfect storm around opioids. Drugs like Oxycontin, Percocet and Dilaudid have been liberally distributed for decades for all kinds of pain. It is estimated that two million Americans are daily opioid users, and over 60 million people received at least one prescription for opioids last year. This massive dump of prescription drugs into communities has provided a steady source for people wanting to self-medicate. In response to this prescription epidemic, people have been cut off, and this has greatly reduced the street supply.
The unintended but predictable consequence is an overdose epidemic. Many people who were reliant on a steady supply of prescription drugs turned to heroin. And now the illegal drug market has tragically switched to synthetic drugs, mainly fentanyl. These new drugs are cheap, potent and extremely hard to dose. People are literally being poisoned. Can you imagine if this was any other kind of poisoning epidemic? What if thousands of people started dying from poisoned meat or baby formula or coffee? We would be treating this as a true emergency. We would immediately be supplying safer alternatives. There would be changes in legislation, and we would be supporting the victims and their families. But for the drug overdose epidemic, we have done none of that. We continue to demonize the drugs and the people who use them and blindly pour even more resources into law enforcement.
So where should we go from here? First, we should fully embrace, fund and scale up harm reduction programs across North America. I know that in places like Vancouver, harm reduction has been a lifeline to care and treatment. I know that the number of overdose deaths would be far higher without harm reduction. And I personally know hundreds of people who are alive today because of harm reduction. But harm reduction is just the start. If we truly want to make an impact on this drug crisis, we need to have a serious conversation about prohibition and criminal punishment. We need to recognize that drug use is first and foremost a public health issue and turn to comprehensive social and health solutions.
We already have a model for how this can work. In 2001, Portugal was having its own drug crisis. Lots of people using drugs, high crime rates and an overdose epidemic. They defied global conventions and decriminalized all drug possession. Money that was spent on drug enforcement was redirected to health and rehabilitation programs. The results are in. Overall drug use is down dramatically. Overdoses are uncommon. Many more people are in treatment. And people have been given their lives back. We have come so far down the road of prohibition, punishment and prejudice that we have become indifferent to the suffering that we have inflicted on the most vulnerable people in our society.
This year even more people will get caught up in the illegal drug trade. Thousands of children will learn that their mother or father has been sent to jail for using drugs. And far too many parents will be notified that their son or daughter has died of a drug overdose. It doesn't have to be this way.