Black paper chains linked a group of sombre individuals together as they made their way in silence through Memorial Peace Park on Saturday, June 19, to draw attention to the ongoing opioid crisis, and to remember the lives that have been lost.
The group donned black T-shirts with the acronym POW emblazoned in white across the front to reflect the theme of the gathering: Prisoners of the War on Drugs.
They are pushing to see recommendations made by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in a 2019 report called Stopping the Harm, followed. In the report Dr. Henry called for the decriminalization of people who use drugs in the province. She said the report underscores the need to make a shift in drug policy for the health and safety of all British Columbians.
“The decriminalization of people who are in possession of drugs for personal use is the next logical and responsible step we must take to keep people alive and connect them to the health and social supports they need,” Henry recommended in the report.
Following the procession the group gathered at the bandstand to listen to speeches and reflection on the issue.
“Whether we are family members or people who use substances we are all held captive to Canada’s failed drug policy”, said Kat Wahamaa, a member of Moms Stop the Harm and Maple Ridge Street Outreach Society.
Since it was Father’s Day weekend, Wahamaa also wanted to acknowledge the largest percentage of people being killed in the epidemic are men between the ages of 19 and 59.
“They are dying in their homes, at their work sites, in their cars, some dying alone because of the stigma attached to substance use. Many of these men, of course, are fathers,” she said.
Wahamaa lost her youngest son to a fentanyl overdose in 2016. He was a father to two young children. She blames Canada’s policy on drugs for compounding the crisis.
The death of a parent can have many long-term effects on children, said Wahamaa, most notably the loss of the love and the bond shared between a parent and their children.
Trauma in the life of a child can lead to self-medicating that pain later in life, she said.
After a seven-year study, researchers in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh found that the death of a parent often leads to higher rates of depression in children within the first two years of their loss, resulting in poor academic performance and difficulties with social functioning of the child – especially with those younger than 12-years.
They also had higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, the study found.
“Our country’s drug policy is manufacturing intergenerational trauma – parents are losing their children, children are losing their parents,” Wahamaa told the crowd.
“This is a health issue, a human rights issue. We must treat people that are struggling (with drug addiction) with love, compassion, and evidence-based care, just as we would with any other life-threatening condition,” she said.
The group also wants to see an overdose prevention site in Maple Ridge
Tracy Scott, co-founding president of the Maple Ridge Street Outreach Society, who was also once a spokesperson for the Anita Place Tent City, lamented the lack of an overdose prevention site in the city.
Overdose prevention sites are generally seen as a low barrier point of introduction to health and/or social services for people with substance-use issues. Each site offers different levels of service including onsite monitoring for people who are at risk of overdosing; overdose prevention education; Naloxone training and distribution; safe disposal options; and referrals for mental health and substance use services – with some sites even offering harm reduction supplies like sterile needles, filters, cookers, and condoms.
“They are safe places where people can go so they don’t use alone and at the same time they can connect to other community resources. What is stopping Maple Ridge from offering this life-saving element of harm reduction?” asked Scott.
For more information on overdose prevention sites and other resources related to the opioid health emergency go to: www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/overdose/what-you-need-to-know/overdose-prevention or towardtheheart.com.
Maple Ridge Street Outreach Society provides people who use drugs opportunities for peer networking, support, advocacy and offers training and education to community organizations and the public. For more information go to: facebook.com/MapleRidgeStreetOutreachSociety.
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