In her decades of working with people struggling with addiction, Julie Dingwell has never met a person who woke up and decided to be a "junkie," or a "street sex worker."
The people she works with at Avenue B in Saint John are often driven to extremes because of the lack of a safe drug supply and the criminalization of drug consumption, she said. She's lost count of how many people who have died from tainted drugs, she said, and what makes it worse is that a solution exists.
"This isn't rocket science," she told Information Morning Saint John. "We just have to jump on board and decide that we're tired of hearing about our people dying."
Avenue B is hosting a Harm Reduction Symposium virtually starting Wednesday, where speakers will discuss how to reduce the number of preventable deaths in New Brunswick and Canada.
According to Health Canada, 26,600 people died of opioid toxicity in the last five years. And in the first year of the pandemic, there was a 95 per cent increase in those deaths, with the number staying steady. The
Saint John police recently sent out an alert saying carfentanil, a powerful opioid, was involved in two sudden deaths in January and February.
The federal government has recently begun funding safer supply programs, where the focus is less on getting people off opioids, and more on giving them access to regulated drugs
One of the speakers at the symposium is Nancy Henderson, the manager of one of those safer supply programs, in Peterborough, Ontario.
When people aren't worried about getting arrested or dying each time they use, everything changes, Henderson said.
"It's a massive change that is visible," Henderson told Information Morning Saint John.
"Engagement in services is up. And people don't have to hustle to get money to buy their drugs.
And so that leaves a whole bunch of time for people to be able to engage in other activities and access other services, including health care."
Henderson said clinics that are designated safer supply spots have a nurse practitioner or a doctor who meets with people, confirms they're already using drugs, and prescribes them the appropriate medication.
The program also includes wrap-around services such as mental health and housing resources.
Henderson said there's no evidence to support the idea that harm reduction enables drug use. In fact, when people are no longer going to the emergency room or having extended hospital stays, "the cost saving is indisputable."
There is already one safe consumption site in Moncton, and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard has promised to have one in each major city in the province.
Dingwell said change starts with individuals challenging the stigma they hold, but ultimately real change can only come if governments are on board.
"All these people that have died, they belong to somebody. They belong to us. And so we have to start thinking as a community, as a province, as a country, because it takes a country to change these big policies," she said.