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Jordan Westfall is the president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs
Jordan Westfall is the president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs

Jordan Westfall

People who use opioids are dying every day. Why won’t Ottawa talk to us? Add to ...

Jordan Westfall is the president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs

The most damaging term applied to people who use drugs isn’t junkie, fiend or pillhead.The most damaging term would never be applied to someone in public. The term appears only in government policy papers, research and literature.

The term is negative externality.

It’s borrowed from economics and is used to describe a cost suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction.

In the case of heightened restrictions on prescription opioids, it refers to the drug consumer.

It refers to the death of the opioid consumer. But you might not ever know that. Government doesn’t show us what a negative externality looks like.

Related: How opioid abuse takes a rising financial toll on Canada’s health-care system

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A negative externality looks like anybody who uses opioid drugs.

The term is as damaging as it is benign sounding. Policymakers use it to describe the “unintended negative consequences” of their decision making.

When OxyContin was taken off the market with no planning or consultation with the people using it, many of them started buying street drugs instead – that was a negative externality. This led to people dying of opioid overdose every 13 hours or so in Ontario after the move was made – a negative externality.

When an overdose epidemic worsens because of decisions made by policymakers, that’s a negative externality.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health believes that delisting high-dose prescription opioids is proactive and preventative over a long-term time horizon. The move, they say, prevents more people abusing prescription opioids in the future.

For the people being prescribed opioids, it could mean buying bootleg fentanyl instead. That could result in death.

Despite all the media coverage, our government is not being held accountable about what restricting supplies of prescription drugs can do to the people using them. Overdose deaths are deemed negative externalities.

They use a term so defanged, so banal but yet so unrelenting in its meaning for a person who uses drugs. A term that crushes those bearing the weight of its structural violence.

Because too many people are unaware of how much life is sucked away when its potential demise is represented in 12-pont Arial font as a “negative externality.”

When it comes to planning our national drug policy, it looks like anyone who uses drugs will be a negative externality.

This week, federal Health Minister Jane Philpot and Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins are co-hosting a conference in Ottawa on the opioid epidemic.

We’re all negative externalities that weren’t invited into the room to discuss public health policy that impacts whether we live or die. In decisions that impact our wellbeing to a degree of life or death, once again we are not being consulted.

There will be much talk about prescription drug safety this Friday.

People need to understand that drug safety starts and ends with people who use drugs. If a drug policy were safe, you’d know it because we’d still be around to tell you about it. Instead, we’re dying in ever-increasing numbers.

The survivors aren’t invited into the room to explain how much things need to change, or how integral we are to a healthy and safe drug policy.

In September, we sent a letter to Ms. Philpott to invite her to consult with an advisory board of people who use opioid drugs. We’ve received no response from her office.

Today, as a national discussion kicks off in Ottawa that will determine the fates of so many of us, our government has once again treated our lives as negative externalities. Once again, we call on our federal Health Minister to meaningfully consult with the people who live and die by the decisions that she is making.

The way forward for a better drug policy is through our experience, intelligence, and understanding of the policy issues that our minister has called this conference about in the first place.

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