British Columbia

Vancouver's housing and opioid crises are linked, says addictions expert

journalist and addictions expert Johann Hari says the current opioid crisis in B.C. and the housing crunch we see in Vancouver are more related than you think.

Johann Hari says housing is necessary in helping to combat the ongoing opioid crisis in B.C.

A discarded needle sits on the sidewalk near False Creek in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Johann Hari — a journalist, addictions expert and New York times best-selling author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs — has travelled the world to see how different countries approach drug addiction.

Those travels included a great deal of time in Vancouver, where Hari researched part of his book. He says the current opioid crisis and the housing crunch in the city are related.

"The core of addiction is about not wanting to be present in your life because your life is too painful place to be," Hari said. "To a large degree …  addiction is a response to your environment."

Hari praises the early response by organizations like The Portland Hotel Society to address housing in underprivileged communities here.

The author is in Vancouver to talk about the underlying causes of addiction and how that relates to basic needs like housing.

He will be speaking on Tuesday as part of the Roddan Jubilee Lecture Series, a lecture series with a focus on fostering conversation around complex social issues.

Backed by science

Hari makes reference to the groundbreaking research of Bruce Alexander — a former Simon Fraser University psychology professor — who studied rats to make the case that drugs don't cause addiction, but other factors, like pain and loneliness, do.

"When you're looking at an addiction crisis, you need to ask why so many people are finding it so hard to get through the day that they need to anaesthetize themselves," Hari said.

Alexander's research found that rats surrounded by other rats and enough food were less likely to become addicted or stay addicted to heroin or cocaine than rats confined in boxes.

"When those rats had the things that make life meaningful for rats, they didn't want to compulsively use the drugs," said Hari.

Hari being insecure about housing and food is one of those causes of pain.

Looking for solutions

Hari also conducted research for his book in Switzerland, where he says he learned a lot about how to effectively treat addiction.

"Switzerland had as bad an opioid crisis as you have here in British Columbia at the moment," Hari said.

"They legalized heroin for addicts … and at the same time they give you extensive supports to turn your life around. A big part of that is housing."

The country also offer job supports and counselling services to help recovering addicts improve their lives.

"One of things I really learned from all these experiences is that the opposite of addiction is connection. And once you see that, you can see why approaches based on shaming people, stigmatizing them, fail so badly."

With files from The Early Edition