Debating Vancouver’s Harm-Reduction Strategies

19 July 2013Opinion

Licia Corbella writing for the Calgary Herald regarding the recent drug-related death of Glee star Cory Monteith:

It’s unlikely that the 31-year-old would have risked bringing hard drugs across the border from his home in the United States, so it’s safe to assume he either picked some up himself or had a gofer do it for him by visiting InSite, the government-sponsored and funded safe injection site at 139 East Hastings. The next step is easy. Wait for an injection drug user to show up, ask them to score you some heroin, grab a few clean, free needles and distilled water, and you’re set.

So the question is, if Monteith were visiting virtually any other city in Canada, would he have been able to find heroin? Would he have died? I think the likelihood is much lower.

I find Corbella’s article poorly researched and borderline ignorant. The headline – Vancouver’s easy drug access may have helped kill Monteith – is also offensive, capitalizing on the tragic, highly-publicized death of a well-known actor to no doubt sell newspapers and drive web traffic. I echo my friend’s well thought out criticism of the article:

I just read your article on Cory Monteith and the use of heroin. You are so off base on so many points it is ridiculous. You are ill-informed and apparently depend on your 82 year old mother for information.

Firstly, for clarification, there is no way you can go to Insite and buy heroin. Drugs are not for sale in Insite in any way shape or form. Participants are not even allowed to pass a piece of gum to their friend inside Insite, never mind share or buy drugs from one another. How do I know? I’ve worked there as a nurse.

Secondly, Cory Monteith likely died from an overdose because he was fresh from rehab and hadn’t used in some time. We call this “opioid naive” – the body is no longer used to the amount of drugs one used when in the peak of addiction. Cory likely thought “I’ll just do 2 papers for old times sake” not realizing that his body could no longer handle that much. Added to even a small amount of alcohol – both heroin and alcohol are Central nervous system depressants – and you have a fatal combination.

Thirdly, your once anecdotal story of a woman not being able to find heroin once does not immediately result in “there is no heroin in other Canadian cities.” As a journalist, you should know better than to make vast generalizations.

Finally, you miss the entire point that addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as such. Insite and the associated services recognize this – which is why entry into detox and treatment have risen significantly since the opening of Insite. More people are off drugs because they were able to use drugs in a safe and trusting environment.

Please get your facts straight before you publish an opinion that can potentially misinform people and possibly cause fear mongering – ultimately leading to the prevention of harm reduction services in other cities.

- Alida Fernhout, RN, BA, BN, MPH

As criticism regarding Corbella’s article erupted online, she was interviewed by Vancouver’s CKNW AM 980. Rather than acknowledge the various shortcomings of her article, the columnist remained indignant – not surprising given her unwillingness to do any basic research on a topic prior to opining so strongly about it.

UPDATE

Guy Felicella, a recovering heroin addict, responding to Corbella:

They care so much about human life from the front desk all the way down to the chill room. They give hope to people who live and struggle with addiction. They care if you use, they care if you want to get clean, they care period. They give you options and choices and it is up to you, but at least the choice is there now because before Insite and Onsite, there was no choice but to use or die.

Society puts so much emphasis on the fact that drug users are bad, but we are human beings. Doesn’t everyone deserve the right to get clean or to use in a safe environment with the support of kind staff that will break their backs to help you?