Jordan Westfall is the president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs.
Recently, Health Canada approved a pilot project by the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control that is a polar opposite approach from what I, a user of illicit drugs, lived through and experienced.
Instead of restricting access to safer opioid drugs, this project ensures that people using opioids who need access to prescription drugs will get it – no questions asked. People who use opioid drugs should treat this project with great optimism, as should their families, and the general public. It will mean lives saved. It contains no misguided attempts at "fixing" a human being and it respects their bodies and minds enough not to force them into involuntary withdrawal or abstinence approaches that often lead to more overdose deaths.
As an undergraduate student, I felt the stigma and discrimination that many Canadians live with as an illicit drug user. This wasn't my research, it was my real life: I used opioids like Oxycontin and fentanyl daily. When I couldn't find drugs, I'd attend class in physical drug withdrawal. When I was short on money, I'd sell my textbooks for drugs.
I'd spend hours looking for drugs, while trying to maintain a full class schedule, in constant fear of the inevitable withdrawal symptoms that paralyzed me. Living like this is tremendously difficult – many people that have used opioid drugs can tell you that. The public's perception is that drug use like mine is a symptom of cowardice and moral failure. That couldn't be further from the truth. Like many people in pain, I reached for an external – but temporary – solution. However, because I used illicit drugs, I also entered a state of criminalization. I was a criminal.
In 2011, a drug that I used, Oxycontin, was reformulated to OxyNeo, which was supposed to be more difficult to crush – and by extension snort or inject. This policy change, which the government was applauded for at the time, put many human lives into a state of chaos, my own included. The reformulation increased the street price of Oxycontin while supplies dried up. When there wasn't any Oxycontin left on the streets to buy, I started to use the most readily available drug – heroin. The strength of street heroin is unpredictable and it carries a much higher risk of overdose (even when only smoked or sniffed, as I did.)
What I was living through was the early stages of an overdose epidemic that is now killing seven Canadians every day. What I experienced was the Canadian government making my life worse and behaviour much riskier, when it restricted access to safer prescription drugs. Please consider that since the government restricted access to prescription opioid drugs – thousands of Canadians have lost their lives to drug overdose in what's being called the worst public health crisis in decades. Canada's drug supply is tainted. It is poison, and bootleg fentanyl and its analogues led to the declaration of a public health emergency in British Columbia.
I'm fortunate enough to still be here, and let me tell you – I'm not recovering from drug addiction, I'm recovering from bad drug policy. Restricting access to prescription opioids has only increased overdose deaths. I experienced more trauma, uncertainty and death as a result of this policy change then at any point in my young life. To this day, my life experience informs my professional life – advocating for the human rights of people who use drugs and for drug policy that reduces overdose deaths.
For a young person in my position, a drug user relegated to a prohibited market, access to safer prescription drugs is an absolute life changer.
This means that people won't have to sell textbooks to have enough money to eat, and most importantly it means that the risk of having their lives cut tragically short is reduced. This means graduations, birthdays and another day to fight for those we have lost to this overdose epidemic.