British Columbia

Amid rising hostility toward drug users in Vancouver, Gabor Maté urges empathy

Addictions expert Dr. Gabor Maté encouraged people to ask themselves why someone may turn to illicit substances.

'I've never met a single person who ever chose to be a drug addict,' the addictions expert said

A woman writes a message on a memorial wall outside of Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings streets in Vancouver on Monday, International Overdose Awareness Day. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Why do some people show little empathy for drug users?

Dr. Gabor Maté says it's because not enough of us recognize the intense personal trauma that pushes a person to become dependent on illicit substances.

"In our society, we tend to look at people's behaviours, rather than ask what is behind the behaviour," explained the physician and renowned addictions expert.

"Kids are considered to be bad or good, but nobody's asking what is making the child behave a certain way."

He also challenged the idea that drug users choose to begin using harmful substances with casual abandon, alluding to comments made by B.C. Premier John Horgan shortly after the number of overdose deaths in June reached a record high. 

Horgan said people make an initial choice to begin using illicit drugs and it spirals into addiction. After facing intense criticism from users and harm-reduction advocates, Horgan apologized and said he misspoke.

"I've never met a single person who ever chose to be a drug addict," Maté told Gloria Macarenko, host of CBC's On the Coast.

Dr. Gabor Maté spent twelve years working in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside with patients challenged by severe addiction and mental illness. (Courtesy Dr. Gabor Mate)

The radio host asked Maté about empathy in light of the increasingly angry public discourse surrounding homelessness and drug use in Vancouver. 

On Thursday, prominent members of Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association banded together to "categorically denounce" hostile comments about homeless people made by one of the party's directors. 

"Let's start harassing these lowlifes, tell them they aren't welcome to degrade our neighbourhoods," Christopher Wilson wrote in a Facebook group called Downtown Community Safety Watch.

In July, B.C. nearly matched its monthly record for deadly illicit drug overdoses with 175 deaths. According to the BC Coroners Service, the month before saw 177 fatalities, which surpassed the previous high of 174 deaths in May. 

Tendency to dehumanize

It's easy to focus on how someone is different from you than recognize what you share, Maté said. That tendency is magnified when the person doesn't resemble you, he added.

Consider the "stereotyped image" of a drug user one may pass on the street.

"We see them as something other than ourselves," said the 76-year-old who survived the Holocaust as an infant. "And it's hard for us to recognize our common humanity."

The clichéd portrayal of substance users in film and television as "low-lives" and "bad people" doesn't help, he added.

In reality, most people have more in common with drug users than they'd like to admit, said Maté.

"Virtually everybody's got some kind of an addiction," he said. "Maybe not to drugs, but to some behaviour that they crave that gives them relief."

Whether it's video games, sex, work or shopping, continued Maté, addictions to any of these activities tap into the same brain circuits that drug users activate with intoxicating substances.

People gather at a rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver in June. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Call for 'leadership'

At a time of record-high overdose deaths in B.C., he believes politicians have a choice to make: Do they want to be "leaders" by implementing science-based solutions to confront the overdose crisis? 

"Or, are you more interested in political power, in which case you're going to cater to people's prejudices?" asked Maté. "I'm afraid that's what we're seeing."

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use —  which Maté supports —  was not a "silver bullet" solution to the opioid epidemic.