Harm reduction opens way back

In our societal war on drugs, marijuana has been called a “gateway drug” for so many years, few people imagine it is anything else. Likewise, a person becoming addicted to drugs is always described as being on a descent, a slippery slope downwards that does not end till the person hits “rock bottom.” That’s when, in many cases, people must climb the “12 steps” up again.

In our societal war on drugs, marijuana has been called a “gateway drug” for so many years, few people imagine it is anything else. Likewise, a person becoming addicted to drugs is always described as being on a descent, a slippery slope downwards that does not end till the person hits “rock bottom.” That’s when, in many cases, people must climb the “12 steps” up again.

But if there is a gateway down, isn’t there also a gateway up?

Well, there is. In fact, there are several; they are located in the various agencies that help people get off drugs.

One of the gates has the label “harm reduction.”

In the eyes of many — including the Prime Minister’s Office — harm reduction programs are but one trip away from enabling drug abuse.

Jennifer Vanderschaeghe is the executive director of the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society, a non-profit organization that assists people with addictions and the diseases of the addict’s lifestyle, in an area covering the old David Thompson Health Region. It’s a big area, with a lot of clients to be served by her five full-time and six part-time staff.

“We run,” Vanderschaeghe said in an interview. “We wear our running shoes.”

Some of the services you find at CAANS — and other places in Red Deer — are about harm reduction. Readers may have been surprised to learn that Alberta Health Services was once giving away free crack pipes to addicts, but recently cut that program.

CAANS has been running a parallel program for quite some time. CAANS will also supply addicts with free needles to inject drugs, and maintains 10 used needle return boxes in the city to reduce the dangerous trash created by people who inject drugs.

In all, says Vanderschaeghe, there is a constantly rolling client list of about 175 people who more or less regularly come through their doors.

But is reducing harm a help? Trying to keep addicts from contracting AIDS or hepatitis C from shared pipes or syringes is one thing, but they’re still addicts, right? They’re still playing a crime-ridden game with their own lives at stake.

Here in Red Deer, the answer is yes. Of that rolling clientele of 175 people that come to CAANS for help, for instance, all but 30 to 40 have yet to ask for assistance in getting clean.

Vanderschaeghe says it can take perhaps seven times through detox and rehab for a person to finally pass the final gate of being drug-free. Ask yourself how hard it is to quit smoking. Now try it with brain-wrenching crack cocaine, no income, a closet full of other demons haunting you — and a society that views you as a pariah.

Not to make excuses, but that’s a monumental task.

Offering harm reduction is the first step in offering trust. “People come in and say ‘I need help. Will you help me today?’” said Vanderschaeghe. From there, trust is earned in ways as small as handing out clean crack pipes or needles.

And the gate leading up is opened.

For the vast majority of CAANS clients, trust grows through sitting with them in court, helping them locate family, find safe housing — and eventually through a door leading to detox and treatment.

Vanderschaeghe didn’t have at her fingertips the number of people they’ve served who have finally emerged into the light most of us take for granted. But she has her success stories, gained over eight years at the agency, which she’s more than willing to share.

Lives regained versus the cost of harm reduction supplies is a bargain. CAANS spends about $42,000 on harm reduction supplies annually, which buys hundreds of pipe stems and thousands of needles.

Treating one HIV patient in the health system is many multiples of that.

Harm reduction is indeed help, actual medically-proven help. That many of us may not realize that fact is actually a good thing. It means we’ve never been to that dark place where the gate back up is located.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.