Kingston marks International Overdose Awareness Day

Members of the community gathered in Market Square on Wednesday afternoon to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.

A crowd of close to 100 came together, with several bringing photos of loved ones lost to what they say shouldn’t even be referred to as an overdose, but as drug poisoning.

The campaign was initially started in Melbourne in 2001 with goals of ending overdose deaths, remembering without stigma those who have died and acknowledging the grief of family and friends.

While its the first time commemorated in an organized capacity in the City of Kingston, last year City Hall was lit purple to mark the occasion.

On Wednesday, several bereaved parents spoke about losing a child to the drug poisoning crisis, and articulated their disappointing experiences with a broken, biased system as it pertains to addiction.

Andrea Keller, a local nurse who lost her son Tyler in 2017, shared her story with the crowd, and said the time is now for concrete action so more families don’t have to experience what her own did.

“Too many young lives are being lost from something that is preventable,” Keller said.

“We need to advocate and fight for access to evidence based specialized treatment for people who use substances. We need to stop criminalizing people who have substance use disorder and provide them with a safe supply so people stop dying, and at least have the opportunity for recovery.”

Candice Christmas, an organizer and speaker at the event and Doctoral Candidate in Health Policy and Equity, said gathering provides an opportunity to mourn those lost and to support people who continue to struggle.

She says it also provides a space to have open, honest conversations about addiction that are often avoided.

“If we’re going to destigmatize this in such a way that people will be willing to reach out for the help that’s available to them to deal with substance use or unresolved mental health challenges then we need to start having honest conversations about what substance use is all about,”  Christmas said.

“This is sort of an opportunity to try to create some of those connections… and to bring a topic that’s laden with shame, and guilt, and fear out into the open.”

Part of those conversations include bringing attention to steps that can be taken to help address the drug poisoning crisis, namely decriminalization and safe supply.

The idea of decriminalization has been supported by the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs and a wide array of health care experts, including KFL&A’s own public health unit and Board of Health.

In August, the KFL&A Community Drug Strategy Advisory Committee submitted a petition to the Government of Canada to address the decriminalization of people who use drugs, which calls for the House of Commons to decriminalize drugs for personal use and create a stakeholder-advised Standing Committee to respond to Canada’s drug poisoning crisis emphasizing harm reduction, prevention, and treatment options.

Christmas says from her perspective, most of the pushback against decriminalization of personal use stems from misunderstanding.

She says it will simply mean less people being put into the court system for personal use, and that she doesn’t agree with the idea that decriminalization of substances will lead to more people taking them up.

“I can assure you that most people who are addicted to crystal meth or fentanyl, their lives are hardly a bowl of cherries,” Christmas said.

“There’s this concept that if we decriminalize that everyone’s going to turn into a meth addict… it’s just not the case.”

Christmas says plainly that while decriminalization is debated against a continued enforcement policy, drug poisoning deaths and arrests for personal usage are not falling and will not fall.

“Until we actually address those issues in our society and make it more equitable, I don’t see how substance use is ever going to decrease,” Christmas said.

“The idea is more let’s not decriminalize people and throw them in jail, because the costs of that are enormous.”

Well advocates say there is much more to be done to address the underlying issues related to substance abuse disorder, decriminalization is seen as a logical and straightforward first step.

“It’s only one piece of the puzzle but it’s a pretty important one,” Christmas said.

Wednesday’s commemoration featured a musical performer, a number of speakers and involvement from a variety of health and service providers whose work often intersects with mental health and addiction issues.

A subcommittee from the KFL&A Community Drug Strategy Advisory Committee is in the midst of planning for community engagement on alternatives to criminalization in the fall, with no specific timeline yet laid out.