Your city on drugs: Winnipeg needs to rethink approach to dealing with abuse

Opioid use is reaching epidemic proportions in Winnipeg, says Morberg House resident Robert Lidstone, and current approaches to the problem aren't working. He says appropriate housing and a range of options for those recovering from addiction are needed.

Focus on healing, housing is vital for those fighting drug addiction, says Morberg House resident

Opioid abuse is reaching epidemic proportions in Winnipeg, says Robert Lidstone, who became addicted to crystal meth in his 20s. Current approaches to the problem aren't working, he says. (Canadian Press)

"This is your brain on drugs."

You might remember that phrase from the late 1980s, when it hit TV screens across North America as part of a large-scale public awareness campaign spearheaded by Partnership for a Drug-Free America. 

It was also part of a decades-long fight against drug abuse that continues to this day, as we see new drugs in Winnipeg, as elsewhere — including methamphetamine and fentanyl.

The media ads and posters in the "your brain on drugs" campaign featured two eggs frying in a pan, and promoted the idea that drugs fry the human brain in a similar fashion.

How well did that message work? And how well are the latest efforts at solving problem drug use working?

I am a child of the 1980s, who grew up in a seemingly "normal" white middle-class family, with a highly accomplished professional father and a very devoted mother who quit her job as a nurse to be the primary caregiver to her children. However, the difficulties of unrecognized, untreated mental illness affected our family dynamic deeply.

As an adolescent, I turned to internet pornography and compulsive sexual behaviour in order to cope with the pain I experienced growing up as a highly sensitive child in an emotionally volatile environment. Around the age of 25, I experienced my first prolonged period of clinical depression toward the end of my work on a master's degree. It was at that point that I discovered crystal meth, and very quickly became addicted.

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Looking back, now aged 36, I can see that I was medicating my emotional pain with drugs. Today I have a diagnosis of bipolar Type 2 disorder, and I am getting appropriate treatment from a psychiatrist.

Receiving this treatment only became possible because I was provided with a supportive place to live after becoming homeless because of my drug addiciton. Morberg House, the transition home in St. Boniface that welcomed me, does not place abstinence conditions on the individuals it serves — men experiencing homelessness, many of whom present with drug or alcohol addiction.

When I moved in this past spring after spending two of the coldest months of the year on and off the streets, it took me some time to stop the cycle of self-destruction.

St. Boniface Street Links, the non-profit agency that operates Morberg House, employs an in-house psychiatric nurse and a social worker, as well as peer support workers. This team supported me without judgment, offering care and encouragement to take the necessary steps to get well.

A psychiatrist who works primarily with the street-involved and homeless populations of Winnipeg evaluated me, and I began to accept that mental illness was a major factor driving my addiction and my reckless behaviour. Eventually I decided of my own free will to go to the detox at the Main Street Project.

Marion Willis, the director of St. Boniface Street Links, came to meet with me there once I had been clean for several days. Together, we made the decision that I was ready to return to Morberg house.

Since then, I have not had any desire to use meth. I have reconnected with my peers in the addiction-recovery community, and started medication to treat my bipolar disorder.

I have also transitioned into my own apartment in the Point Douglas neighbourhood, while remaining connected to Street Links, which has an office in the building where I live.

'This is our city on drugs'

A few weeks ago, however, I was alarmed to read in the Monday morning paper that the Winnipeg Police Service says that meth is "everywhere in the city."

This is our city on drugs.

Crystal methampethamine use is reaching epidemic proportions in Winnipeg. Just as alcohol wreaked havoc around the time this city was founded in the 1870s, today the use of crystal meth is destroying lives. The lethal drug fentanyl is mixed in with a lot of the meth in Winnipeg and other cities, and when it is, it can kill.

This is our city on drugs.

Winnipeg police seized about half a million dollars worth of cocaine and methamphetamine on July 10, 2017, some of which was packaged in gift bags. 'When violence toward others is fuelled by meth or other drugs … all hell breaks loose,' says Robert Lidstone. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

The neurotransmitter dopamine is a crucial component of the functioning of the human brain. It gives us a feeling of reward for activities that are essential to our survival.

When a person uses methamphetamine, the brain dumps dopamine into the spaces of his or her brain at up to 14 times the natural level. That is why people on meth stomp around the city, incredibly driven but lacking any true sense of direction.

Some of them are mostly harmless, as I was — although I certainly did many things that were wrong. Others commit crimes fuelled by a dopamine flood, generating immense costs in terms of stolen or damaged property.

When violence toward others is fuelled by meth or other drugs (and alcohol also remains a big one too), all hell breaks loose.

'Everyone needs a place to call home'

It's time for us to come together as a community, as a city, and consider how best to solve this problem. Throwing more money into jails and hospitals isn't working. It's not making us safer or healthier. We need wiser investments of the taxpayer's dollar, and of our collective wealth — financial, human and physical resources.

Everyone needs a place to call home, and a community to which they belong. We need to invest in appropriate housing for everyone that balances our material needs for food and shelter with our spiritual needs for hope and caring for ourselves and one another.

The Morberg House model of responding to each person's unique needs and discovering each person's unique gifts is worth multiplying. We need a range of options for people along the spectrum of recovery, from harm reduction to abstinence and everything in between.

Robert Lidstone has been living at Morberg House, a transition house for those who are struggling with homelessness or drug addiction, since last spring. 'We need a range of options for people along the spectrum of recovery, from harm reduction to abstinence and everything in between,' he says. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council in B.C. recently wrote in the Globe and Mail that "our all-too-human approach can be to call for, plead and beg for abstinence. We believe we see the problem and a resolution clearly, in black-and-white terms. We see the substance, the drug of choice or alcohol, as the problem, and we see abstinence as the solution."

The drugs (including alcohol) are only the surface of the problem facing our city. Beneath that lie issues of unresolved trauma and suffering, both at the level of the individual and the broader level of the community as a whole.

Winnipeg is the home of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which set out a path of healing for relations between settler and Indigenous peoples. It's time to tell ourselves the truth about our city, and to reconcile with one another.

This can't happen if people are medicating their pain with drugs, or being denied the human right to a housing — to a place to call home.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robert Lidstone is a lived experience member of the St. Boniface Street Links Board of Directors.