“We need to meet people where they are at…” is one of the most common phrases we hear in the news and media when applied to saving lives through harm reduction. But the phrase doesn’t end there. The full quote is “We need to meet people where they are at, and take them where they need to go.” Quite often, that second portion is left out, and never spoken, because it highlights that harm reduction and safe supply need community members, leaders, and politicians to do more to build upon the quality of substance users’ lives, more than just an untainted supply.
Safe supply is a great start, but ultimately people accessing this supply are sent to use their supply in the same situations, surroundings, and circumstances that fuel their addiction. Where are the mental health resources to heal the root causes, the trauma and harms that have been carried by these individuals? Where is the supportive housing that connects people to resources, offering health and safety, not just a roof over their heads. Harm reduction is but one stepping stone to treating the disease of addiction. Where is the attention to the other components, education, prevention, and treatment? Why is there so little attention paid to these pillars?
In a 2018 study of safe supply in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, a group of 103 individuals were given access to opioid replacements like hydromorphone and heroin in an effort to test the effectiveness of substitution therapy to counteract the increasing prevalence of fentanyl. After 5 months, more than 50 percent of the participants had traces of fentanyl in their urine. One of the hallmarks of addiction is needing more of a person’s drug of choice, and more frequently to achieve the same effect.
If people are still buying a tainted supply, then there is still the risk of toxicity or overdose, it is just lessened, and to reduce the impact on addicts, their loved ones, and the community, we still have much further to go. It’s true that we need to do more, we need to be better at supporting addicts. We need better education about addiction, we need to reduce the stigma surrounding substance misuse. We need to provide better mental health supports to address the root cause of someone’s addiction, and we need more spaces for people who want to recover, and make more, better funded, treatment spaces available.
As the world’s methods for addiction treatment shift to building Recovery Capital, there are key areas that need to be built upon in an addicted person’s life to enable recovery. Stopping substance use and dependency requires improvements in health, housing, employment, nutrition, education, social integration, and sense of purpose. You’ll find that most addicts in recovery who have built on their recovery capital rate their lives as happy, fulfilling, and challenging when they aren’t chained to their drug of choice. Now that safe-supply is here, let’s start rebuilding lives instead of just prolonging them.