Drug Overdoses and the violence of prohibition

Drug Overdoses and the violence of prohibition

By Richard Cunningham

Warnings went up throughout the DTES last month announcing that on June 11th there had been 5 overdoses within 8 hours at Insite. Word also spread about other overdoses in the community, and in at least two cases, they were fatal.

One response to the tragic reality of overdoses is to promote harm reducing practices. Don’t shoot alone. Test your drugs (smaller doses on the first hit after a score). Don’t mix drugs (be careful when combining illicit drugs with other pharmaceuticals, prescribed medications or alcohol). If you have stopped using for a while, don’t start using at the same level as when you stopped. Ask others about strength.

Of course, it is important to recognize when someone is in trouble, and respond right away. Immediate response at Insite has saved many lives, and calls to 911 have also kept people from going under.

The word “overdose” is an interesting word. It suggests that someone took too much of a certain drug, and as a result they experienced physical reactions that were harmful, perhaps fatal. The focus is on the individual user, the excessive amount of the drug taken, and the chemical, biological, and physiological effects on the body.

The term “overdose,” however, keeps us focused on the individual rather than the social, economic and political dimensions of it. Poverty is a significant factor in determining the likelihood and frequency of overdoses. Lack of adequate food, terrible housing conditions in SROs, living in shelters or on the street, insufficient access to proper health care – all of these can increase anxiety, depression and panic, undermine a person’s mental health, and amplify the desperate need for relief despite the risks involved.

But above all, overdoses are the result of the political and legal structures of drug prohibition. When the government determines that the production, distribution, sale and use of certain drugs are illegal, and it makes laws that criminalize people who are involved with these drugs, it means that there are no regulations in place around quality control and no information about content or purity. The two biggest causes of overdoses are the unknown purity of the drug, and what it has been mixed with at the production stage. Under the regime of prohibition, the user has no firm knowledge of the contents of the drug and therefore every use is a dangerous game of roulette.

Drug overdoses, then, do not reflect the moral or mental flaws of the individual drug user. They are the result of a legal and political system that criminalizes drug use and in the process is willing to inflict violence and human suffering on those who use them (and their loved ones). Overdoses are the result of an insane system of criminalization, not the product of “bad” drugs or defective people. The only way to stem the tide of overdoses in our community is to dismantle prohibition and determine an alternative policy to the war on drugs.


One thought on “Drug Overdoses and the violence of prohibition

  1. Richard, you might be interested in this study of overdoses in Vancouver,before (Jan 1, 2001, to Sept 20, 2003) and after (Sept 21, 2003, to Dec 31, 2005) the opening of the Vancouver SIF.

    Dated 23 April 2011 , Vancouver Coastal Health, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

    The Lancet, Volume 377, Issue 9775, Pages 1429 – 1437

    ” The fatal overdose rate in this area decreased by 35·0% after the opening of the SIF, from 253·8 to 165·1 deaths per 100 000 person-years (p=0·048). By contrast, during the same period, the fatal overdose rate in the rest of the city decreased by only 9·3%, from 7·6 to 6·9 deaths per 100 000 person-years (p=0·490). There was a significant interaction of rate differences across strata (p=0·049).”

    Insite is therefore officially part of the solution, and street drug users should continue to educate the public about the dangers of prohibition, through dialectical systemic interpretations of labelling like the one you have so eloquently presented above.


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