Stop polarizing the debate. It took both harm reduction and drug treatment to save me
When I was at my most vulnerable, volunteers with a needle distribution service gave me hope
This story is part of a series called The Way Out: Addiction in Alberta. Join the discussion, or read more about the series here. It is the opinion of Calgary resident Chris McBain. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
I don't vote conservative. But I deeply appreciate what the UCP government has done for recovery.
They opened more beds with free treatment and, in 2021, it saved my life. I'm a former injection drug user. Treatment gave me the chance to get off the street and on my feet again and make a fresh start with my life.
But harm reduction also saved my life.
When I was at my most vulnerable, volunteers with a needle distribution service in Edmonton gave me hope, and helped me navigate the complex road to recovery.
Without harm reduction I wouldn't have found the path to life.
There's a lot of anger and rhetoric around this today. Policy makers, advocates and many others are polarizing recovery versus harm reduction. But they're not mutually exclusive. They're both essential.
For the past four years, Marshall Smith — the premier's chief of staff and a former cocaine user himself — has been leading an effort to invest heavily in new treatment options while leaving supervised consumption sites in limbo and scaling back access to alternative treatments.
But I believe his problem is consensus bias — what happens when people see their own choices and assume their situation and experience is common. Smith was able to recover with treatment, so he assumes others can.
- Once homeless and addicted to drugs, the premier's chief of staff leads the province's opioid response
But drug treatment centres don't address the poverty, homelessness, lack of education or deep-rooted trauma that make recovery much more complicated for many. An employee at a treatment centre with a diploma in addictions isn't equipped to help someone recover from the trauma of rape, or a lifetime of fighting homophobia and extreme poverty.
The other reality no one is talking about is the efficacy of treatment.
In 2017, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction surveyed 855 people who had gone into treatment. They found 58 per cent did not complete the program, and of those who did complete it, nearly half returned to substance use.
Because if you can't get a job due to a criminal record, or therapy to address trauma, then how are you supposed to build a life worth staying sober for?
When the UCP government says harm reduction doesn't work, it points to B.C. But B.C.'s model is failing because there isn't a mass pouring of resources into mental health, housing and food security.
We should look instead to Portugal. It decriminalized personal drug possession in 2001, but as part of a reorientation to a wider, health-based approach. And drugs were still confiscated with administrative penalties such as fines or community service.
I would have stayed lost and probably died by overdose on the street.- Chris McBain
In 2001, Portugal had the same overdose rates as most of Europe and they were climbing fast. The country still struggles with drug use, but its overdose rates are now a fraction of what some other countries are seeing. In 2019, for example, Portugal was at six overdose deaths per million residents, compared to the European Union average of 23.7 per million.
As well, HIV diagnosis dropped from 1,287 new cases in 2001 to only 16 new infections in 2019. Prison rates also dropped and the government reinvested funds into mental health and housing. That's the piece we're missing in Canada.
My own substance use got out of control in 2012, when I was sexually assaulted and found out a month later I was HIV positive. Until this time, I was a pretty standard young gay man who liked to party. With my new diagnosis, the party went dark and substance use took over.
I lost my job, filed for bankruptcy more than once, became homeless and traded sex for a bed to sleep on. I lost the support of my family and friends, and even the spark that made me "me."
Had it not been for that needle distribution team in Edmonton back in 2016, I would have stayed lost and probably died by overdose on the street.
The journey back has not been straightforward. I had been to treatment four times, detox 10 times, and always relapsed. But on December 24, 2021, I tried detox once more and it finally stuck.
I've been in recovery for 14 months now. Staying stable took getting housed, finding support groups, a psychiatrist, a social worker, and rebuilding my circle of loving friends and family. It took finding a meaningful role in society and a hell of a lot of faith.
I'm grateful to both harm reduction and treatment as they have helped give me my life back in a whole new way. I just wish we could all see the importance of these pieces working together. Treatment is essential for some — but how will people get there if they're dead?
CBC Calgary welcomes your ideas for short opinion articles. Do you have a strong opinion that could add insight, illuminate an issue of concern to Calgary and Alberta readers? We want to hear from you. Send us your pitch at CalgaryOpinions@cbc.ca