Calgary·Opinion

Supervised drug consumption site seemed too good to be true. It turned out it was

Decision makers preach a single road to wellness; one that is known only to them. They will share it – impose it actually – because they hold the power and make the rules, says addictions medicine practitioner Dr. Bonnie Larson.

For the patients dear to me, it was a place where people don't die, says Dr. Bonnie Larson

A nurse holds a tray of supplies to be used at a supervised drug consumption site. For the patients of Dr. Bonnie Larson, it was a place where the staff not only kept you alive, but treated you with respect. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Dr. Bonnie Larson, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Here is a story. It is a story about someone who is hated. Hated for being a mirror; hated for reflecting, unflinchingly, our collective faults and failings to which we prefer to remain blind. The story is a saga, but the ending is not yet written. 

This is not my story; I am but a witness.  

This story is a portrait comprising several patients dear to me, and a tribute to those whom I dearly miss. 

She was a child during the Sixties Scoop. She survived the genocide of her people. She shared with me, as so many courageously related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the details of her life.

She wove this tapestry over many visits so that eventually I could see the whole: a horror story more vivid than a nightmare that, once apparent, I could not unsee. She granted to her privileged, white doctor, colonizer, settler on her land, a gift in the form of story. Her tapestry illustrated for me the connections through time and space that are so easily lost as we look to the future and forget about the past. 

Disappointment and dread

She spoke of the stench of residential school, a place so powerfully evoked in the poem Monster by Dennis Saddleman. 

She allowed me into her world: The numbing that was the only way to survive horrific, embodied memories and the pain of her deep, scarring, complicated wounds. Alcohol, crisis after crisis, drugs, loss, grief, alcohol, more loss and grief, and more drugs.

She was a lost child, stolen from her parents, and her children were taken, too. Her attempts to leave this world. The disappointment and dread upon waking in a hospital bed, in a building just like the schools, a building also bursting with elitism, racism, and paternalism. Oh, and a few good things, but those are not for her.

Here's a bus ticket and a 12-pack of Percocet. Be on your way with that mirror. So clear is that reflection, it is blinding! 

A return to the streets. Shelters. Another brush with death: fentanyl. Narcan brings some back. Everyone is scared though. The police, the jails, the institutions. Lucky if someone calls for help. The drugs are powerful; nobody can escape without help anymore. Heroin? Can't even feel it. 

A nurse cleans a booth following use by a person at a supervised consumption site. According to addictions medicine practitioner Dr. Bonnie Larson, decision makers preach a single road to wellness; one that is known only to them. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Then, suddenly there is a place where you can go. It's a supervised consumption site, where people don't die. It is also staffed with caring people who understand; many of them have been in your situation and know a path to a better place. Staff who not only keep you alive, but also treat you with respect and bend over backwards to deliver compassionate, complete care. It seems too good to be true.  

Which it is.

The racist, elitist, paternalistic backers of the beliefs, policies and commemorative statues of John A. Macdonald are taking that away. Nothing good for you can stay.

The faces at the front are no longer friendly. They insist you give them your real name and proof of health insurance. They tell you to pull up your socks and go to treatment, because they need their quota of abstainers to get funding.

This is not history. This is now

The policy decisions are shielded by trickery, claiming they will replace an already excellent, life-saving service with something even better. But you've heard that before. Come, give us your children, our intentions are good. We will provide for them in a better way.

No deviation from the ideology happened then, either, despite the many deaths of children whose remains were recently discovered in unmarked graves. 

History will show that 215 sets of tiny bones were but a tiny fraction of the total body count.     

This is not history, though. This is now. Deaths and illness due directly to policy decisions are accelerating. I cannot pretend to not see the daily suffering of my patients and their families. I am a witness to ongoing death and destruction, and I cannot erase the images so vividly drawn by my patients' stories; undeniable illustrations connecting their suffering not only to our shared history but also to a co-created present and uncertain future.

Decision makers preach a single road to wellness; one that is known only to them. They will share it – impose it actually – because they hold the power and make the rules. But it is us who will – or will not – excuse them on the basis of supposed "good intentions" while allowing deaths to mount.

This is eerily familiar. Has anything really changed?


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Bonnie Larson is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Calgary. She leads the Calgary Street CCRED Collaborative and practices primary care and addictions medicine.

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