The Student Medical Society of Saskatchewan hosted the 2022 Global Health Conference from Jan. 15 to 22, where guest speakers educated participants on substance use and harm reduction.
Speakers including Marie Agioritis, Garth Mullins and Dr. Tom Milne centred their talks on drug use, advocating for more harm reduction efforts in Canada. Harm reduction is a series of measures taken to alleviate negative consequences associated with drug use.
Agioritis, who is the Saskatchewan director for Moms Stop The Harm, a national organization supporting families affected by substance-use-related harms and deaths, believes that harm reduction is the best way to prevent overdoses.
“[The] three harm reduction efforts [that] can make the biggest difference [are] safe supply, safe consumption or overdose prevention and decriminalization,” Agioritis said.
Addressing one of the harm reduction efforts, safe consumption, Agioritis argued that safe consumption sites are integral to community care.
“Safe consumption sites will reduce the spread of bloodborne diseases, provide wound care, medical staff, [and] minimize open drug use and discarded drug paraphernalia in the community,” Agioritis added.
One of the other harm reduction efforts, safe supply, provides uncontaminated prescription drugs to users, helping prevent overdoses and other potentially harmful effects from contaminated drugs obtained illegally.
Safe supply was endorsed by Mullins, a prominent Canadian drug-use activist and public speaker based in Vancouver. Since 1998, his team has been advocating for safe supply.
“Safe supply is the demand that we’ve had… for a very long time,” Mullins said.
Mullins feels that the major issue is not an increase of drug use, but the problems arising from drug use, such as the overdose deaths that can be prevented if there was safer supply.
“The crisis isn’t that people are using drugs. The crisis is that the drugs are illegal and contaminated, thus, people are dying. It’s really a drug policy crisis,” Mullins said.
As part of the conference, The Sheaf attended a breakout room featuring a philosophical perspective on drug use by Dr. Milne, who possesses a master of arts in philosophy and a medical degree from the University of Saskatchewan.
Dr. Milne feels that understanding addictions and mental health involves allowing ourselves to acknowledge our own ignorance, using Socrates as an example.
“Socrates was … famously … considered by the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece to be the wisest man in Greece because he knew that he knew nothing,” Milne said.
He examined the interplay between self-restraint and temptations through a reference to Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus encountered sirens — creatures that can enchant people with their songs and beauty, causing sailors to be thrown overboard because they are tempted to get closer.
“There is this feature of our conflicting desires that we have within ourselves. Ultimately, addiction seems to be when those conflicting desires get to the point where one is literally incapable of repressing the one [stimuli] that is harmful,” Milne said.
Other than the external temptations to use drugs, pharmaceutical companies that lie about their products can also exacerbate addictions. In particular, Agioritis mentioned how pharmaceuticals sold opioids to the health care providers in the 1990s claiming it was a harmless drug, causing many Canadians to become addicted.
“Why are we in this mess? Because somebody got really rich out of this,” Agioritis said.
Although addiction is not a choice, drug users are often negatively judged by society. Mullins feels that drug users are labeled with many stereotypes, such as being a “criminal,” having a corrupt soul and holding less morals.
“We’ve had all these explanations for the last century about what’s wrong with the drug user. We’re criminals … Something’s wrong with our soul… We are morally defective,” Mullins said.
Dr. Milne finds that being empathetic to users and not defining them by their addiction is important to offering support from stigma around drug use.
“I would encourage us to try to remember again that this is a person in front of us. They are not an addict. They are someone who is struggling with addiction.”