Life After Death – Getting Harm Reduction Activism Out Of The Grave

The news that March 2018 holds the second highest overdose fatalities in the history of British Columbia is heartbreaking; 161 people died from overdoses in just one month. It is also heartbreaking that drug users are defined by their absence and death. We are stereotyped as zombies, hungry ghosts or corpses to be collected and counted. Most formal discussions on harm reduction read like a seance where doctors, politicians, and journalists serve as mediums to the spirit-world of substance users and addicted apparitions that require “respectable” intermediaries to speak on their behalf.

The scarce resources that address (some) of our bodily needs are imbued with the power to save lives and always operate with our inevitable mortality in mind. Harm reduction is riddled with phrases like “You can’t treat the dead” as if support for drug users must be contingent upon their recovery and return to the world of the living. Articles warn of frontline workers developing PTSD from witnessing lifeless bodies in the streets, but the same concern isn’t extended to “clients” that watch their peers pass. Those with addictions aren’t described as having futures because the unspoken assumption is it’s only a matter of time before they will join the body count.

Illicit drug use is treated like a terminal illness, which is the result of efforts to reframe “substance use disorders” as a medical problem, and not a moral/criminal matter. This may seem like an improvement, but while the “War on Drugs” has for many years been recognized as a “War on Drug Users” and a “War on the Poor,” the justification for criminal punishment has shifted over time.

With the advent of the fentanyl crisis, the distinction between users and dealer has become flexible. The State has adapted medicalizing and paternalistic discourses about drug users who are white and middle class as victims, while retaining their criminalizing powers over dealers and racialized, low-income users as irredeemable and fundamentally felonious. While white, middle-class drug-user victims are defined by their dangerous proximity to death – and the need for Canada to save them – others are the danger. Racialized, colonized, and low-income drug users are outside Canada’s sphere of empathy; they become “death dealers” who must be severely punished in the name of “public health.”

Drug dealers, when defined as “death-dealers,” allows the State to justify punitive intervention (such as manslaughter charges for those found selling fentanyl) which causes greater harm to subsistence and racialized dealers who frequently have their own addictions. British Columbia’s Minister of Public Safety frames punishing these “killers” as helping to abate the crisis, but in practise the opposite occurs. Incarcerating drug-users diminishes their life chances by depriving them of an income and access to harm reduction programing. Upon release many will find themselves more impoverished, stigmatized and likely to suffer a fatal overdose. The Canadian state is co-opting surging overdose fatalities to continue drug prohibition, and in the name of preserving life, ends up dooming many more.

It is Canada that is responsible for the fentanyl overdose crisis. Dealers frequently have little say in the product they sell, and those with their own addictions are exposed to the same risks as their clients. The line between user and dealer isn’t always clear, but ignoring this fact and blaming dealers allows the Canadian state to ignore its role in the overdose crisis. Prohibitionist drug policy and law enforcement strategies aimed at eliminating the “narcotic” supply has always pushed the illicit market towards more powerful substances. Referred to as the Iron Law of Prohibition, drug busts and seizures encourage distributors to shift to stronger, more potent substances in order to avoid detection and reduce the risk of imprisonment. Scapegoating dealers is how politicians and the police poison the well, and distract from the destructive effects of their drug prohibition policies.

The overdose crisis is defined by death, but our activism cannot be grounded in the grave. How do we mourn and call attention to this tragedy while affirming the humanity of the living? How do we cry out against overdose fatalities without mischaracterizing addiction as a death-sentence and erasing the creativity and community existences of those who are drug dependent? Despite being disabled and criminalized by society, drug users are alive and capable, especially when they are able to access housing, services, and safe substances that don’t oppress, humiliate, or impede their ability to support one another. Society will not be transformed until we tear down the power structures that create artificial categories of deserving/undeserving that uphold the lives of some and pre-determine the deaths of others.

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