Opioid crisis: why aren't we moved to action?
Zoe Dodd is an authority on the opioid crisis. Not by academic decree, but by virtue of her presence on the front lines. Dodd works at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, and she's deeply involved in harm reduction and overdose prevention.
Dodd is so deeply involved that she has had to pull back at times for her own health and well-being; the crisis has claimed friends and acquaintances.
"...I was in the midst of so much grief, and everyone around me said, 'You gotta get off the front line. You need to give yourself a break.'"
Dodd has been doing work not just within the walls of a clinic, but in a tent in a downtown park. Her message is: human beings are at the heart of this crisis, and our society often fails to recognize that.
We live in a society that hates people who use drugs; we live in a society that doesn't see people who use drugs as valuable and blames them for what's happening.- Zoe Dodd
'I can't actually stomach it'
She sees this attitude manifested in a very concrete way, right where she works.
Dodd is part of a team that set up an unsanctioned, pop-up safe injection site in Toronto's Moss Park in August. That put her in the path of remarks from passers-by. She describes the discomfort she experienced in some of those encounters:
"We have people who sometimes come to the park and say, 'you're just prolonging another day of life for someone; you're just stopping their trip to heaven. Sometimes I try to explain what's happening, and why we as a society need to take care of each other, and I try to talk to them about the issues of poverty or homelessness. I try to have a conversation, but sometimes it's just so hateful that I can't actually stomach it. It's just so awful that people feel so entitled to public space, or that they wish death on others, and that that's ok and accepted -- that's not ok and acceptable."
Zoe Dodd says that the use of drugs is a symptom of broader social ills, like homelessness, abuse, the effect of residential schools on Indigenous communities, unemployment, and poverty.
There's people who use drugs all over the place in the city. But we're not afraid of them because they're behind closed doors, they're not out in a park, we don't see it. But what we're seeing is poverty. And that is what people are afraid of.- Zoe Dodd
'We're talking about people'
According to Dodd, one of the biggest hurdles that stands in the way of dealing with the opioid crisis isn't procedural or political. It's about public perception of drug use, and the failure to see people who use drugs as human beings.
"You know, the person who is living in poverty and who struggled through the residential school system...we say, 'oh they're a junkie, they're an addict, they're a crackhead…' And these are all derogatory, negative terms to 'other' people and marginalize them in our society, and let the government off the hook for the things they should be doing to support people.
I want people to think about the people they're talking about. You know; call someone by their name. We just need to think about how we speak about people. That's why I often will just say the word 'people', constantly! Because I'm like, 'we're talking about people! We're talking about people.'- Zoe Dodd
'I believe that drugs saved my life'
Dodd's understanding of the crisis is informed by her own experience. She recalls being subjected to traumatizing abuse and says that using drugs kept her alive so she could cope.
"I believe that drugs saved my life...I didn't have anyone who said to me 'you have post traumatic stress disorder, you're not being able to sleep at night and being afraid and sleeping with all your lights on and screaming and waking up in panic attacks, that's taken me 20 years to recover from. Having drugs helped me to deal with that because I couldn't get into the things I needed."
"Those sorts of things in life are so hard to overcome, and we blame individuals, instead of saying 'wait, in our society, we need to get rid of sexual violence. Women shouldn't get raped'."
'We need to end the war on drugs'
After spending fourteen years on the front lines, the recent change in circumstances -- a toxic drug supply laced with fentanyl -- is all too apparent to her.
People are dying who didn't normally die from using drugs. It makes me wonder about their story. It makes me wonder what happened and how did they get here. And it makes me really sad.- Zoe Dodd
The opioid crisis is not a clear-cut, isolated problem. It has many contributing factors. And Zoe is concerned that governments are not prepared or willing to see it as a nuanced, complex issue.
"We need to end the war on drugs. We need to work towards that. We cannot see people as disposable, we cannot just lock people up and put them away for what they put in their bodies. We cannot do that anymore. This is not working. We do have to see it as a health crisis right now, but it's also a social and political crisis."
Click LISTEN above to hear the full conversation with Zoe Dodd, including her thoughts on why the war on drugs tends to villainize drug users, and how that makes the problem of addiction harder to deal with.