This is an updated post, originally written in 2021.

It was on April 14, 2016, when Dr Perry Kendall, BC’s Provincial Health Officer at the time, declared a public health emergency in response to a significant increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths.

Yet, here we are, nearly eight years later, and sadly, things have only gotten worse. As of the end of January 2024, close to 14,000 British Columbians have lost their lives to toxic unregulated drugs.

2023 was a record-breaking year in lives lost to unregulated drugs in our province: an average of 6.9 deaths per day, 5% more than the previous high of 2,383 deaths recorded in 2022. Last year saw more than 2,500 lives lost to unregulated drugs, with highly toxic fentanyl being the most detected contaminant by far.

Now is a good time to talk about stigma again.

Why? Because stigma kills. And because we as individuals and a society have the power to end it.

What is stigma?

Stigma, as defined by the Government of Canada, is “negative attitudes, beliefs, or behaviours about or towards a group of people because of their situation in life. It includes discrimination, prejudice, judgment, and stereotypes, which can isolate people who use drugs.”

What part does stigma play in the toxic drug poisoning crisis?

Commonly used words like “addict,” “drug user,” or “junkie,” for example, are words you’ve probably heard to describe or refer to a person who uses substances; yet these words shine a negative light on people by stirring up inaccurate images that dehumanize them. Over time, this can lead to a common belief that people who use drugs are unworthy.

Demeaning words can also cause shame that leads to hiding substance use from loved ones and can prevent people from seeking out help or accessing healthcare.

What about decriminalization?

To help address the toxic drug poisoning crisis, the federal government approved an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for BC to allow for the removal of criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of specific illicit substances by individuals over 18. This exemption is a pilot program effective until January 31, 2026.

One of the key aims of decriminalization of people who use substances is to diminish the stigma that frequently drives individuals to use substances alone, increasing the risk of fatal overdose.

However, societal stigma remains pervasive.

This can be seen in legislation restricting public consumption of illegal substances, which further drives stigma and undermines the intention of decriminalization. Whether this legislation comes into force will be determined by BC’s Supreme Court who have issued a temporary injunction due to the irreparable harm this act could cause to people at risk from unregulated toxic drugs.

What can we do about stigma?

We all have a role to play in eliminating stigma and helping to end the toxic drug poisoning crisis. Here are seven ways you can act and help save lives starting today:

Change the way you view people who use substances. With negative images and portrayals of people who use substances often circulating in the news, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that all these people are unhoused or lack employment. Keep in mind that there’s a chance that, whether you’re aware of it or not, there are people in your life who use substances.

Pay attention to the words you use to talk about people who use substances. Words matter. Changing the way you think about people who use substances can help change the way you talk about them. And remember, others, including young people and children, are listening. Normalize the use of non-stigmatizing language at home, at work, and socially.

Choose to use language that enhances personhood. Personhood conveys details regarding an individual’s inclusion in society, fostering a feeling of personal worth, belonging, and being an integral part of the human family. It forms the basis for ethical considerations and legal rights, emphasizing the inherent value and dignity of each unique human being. Simply put, choose people-first language that encourages empathy, such as “people who uses substances” rather than “substance users.”

Learn how harm reduction saves lives. Harm reduction is rooted in respect and dignity. It starts with compassion, and eliminating the stigma of substance use is the first step. One harm reduction intervention is prescribed safer supply. Learn how we are supporting this important work.

Continue to educate yourself (and others). Stay up-to-date on unregulated drug deaths in BC and critical initiatives like decriminalization, and other factors such as legislation that can perpetuate stigma. When you hear others spreading misinformation about people who use substances, take the opportunity to educate and point to the facts. We update statistics regularly here  and will continue to provide information and educational resources.

Cultivate a deeper sense of empathy. Taking time to learn, understand, and talk about substance use will help expand empathy for people who use substances. Growing in empathy will only enhance all the other ways to eliminate stigma mentioned above. When we care, we act. And when we act, we foster change.

Donate to the Together We Act campaign. The toxic drug poisoning crisis is a public health emergency. Through our Together We Act campaign, we are working with our donors to play an active role in preventing further deaths. Read more about this important campaign and donate to support impactful projects.

Toxic drugs will continue to kill members of our community every day until we take collective action in the ways we can to prevent more deaths. One of the immediate actions we can take is to eliminate stigma.

Your actions can and will make a difference. Together we can end this public health emergency, reduce harm, and save lives.

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