Political lies and fairy-tale delusions about addiction realities kill users. It’s time for change

News | Gregory Beatty

To tackle winter ice and snow at the downtown condo I live in, we kept a metal garbage can full of de-icer at the back entrance. It sat there into early June, and one day I noticed some of the bluish-white crystals had been spilled and the can’s lid was ajar. When I looked inside, I found the can had been emptied of de-icer.

Curious, I checked the security footage. Turned out, the night before some guy had come along in the alley with a gym bag and glass jar, scooped out all the de-icer, and walked away with a bulging gym bag.

When I told a neighbour about it, she half-laughed. “What’s he going to do, snort it?”

Now, I don’t know what the person planned to do with the de-icer. Hopefully not snort it, or smoke or inject it. Or try to pass it off as crystal meth to others.

But with communities across Saskatchewan being ravaged by the highly addictive drug, there’s no doubt a crisis is unfolding.

One that Kara Fletcher says needs urgent attention.

Fletcher is director of the University of Regina Social Policy Research Centre (Saskatoon campus). With some local youth, she’s created a podcast called Glass Gateway that explores issues around crystal meth and recovery.

“With all the media attention that the opioid and fentanyl crisis has received, I think crystal meth has been somewhat overlooked,” says Fletcher.

“Part of it, I think, is that it seems to be regionally concentrated in the prairies with high use rates compared to the rest of Canada. It’s cheap and accessible, so young people in particular are able to get their hands on it,” she says.

Crystal meth is part of the amphetamine family — a stimulant the U.S. military notoriously gave to soldiers in World War II to keep them alert and energized. Speed, uppers, crank and ice are some slang terms for the drug, and many high-profile people have fallen victim over the decades.

Judy Garland is a tragic example. MGM pushed pills on her as a teen to make her lose weight and stay energized on sets.

Crystal meth is particularly insidious. From pretty much the first hit it rewires the brain, flooding pleasure centres with dopamine. Users feel confident and energetic, and quickly become addicted.

They also develop a tolerance, so they soon need more crystal meth to get the same high.

“It’s incredibly addictive, and it’s often linked with other things that get people into trouble,” says Fletcher.

“In talking with some of the youth who work on the podcast, it really exacerbated any existing mental health issues they had. They might start out feeling okay, but they quickly start to feel unwell — both physically and psychologically,” she says.

With chronic use, a person may feel anxious and confused, be unable to sleep, have mood swings, and become violent.

Paranoia and psychosis are other possibilities, and users may feel like insects are crawling on or under their skin.

Physically, they can also develop hard-to-heal sores and pimples, and damage their teeth (known as meth mouth) from poor hygiene, sugar cravings, clenching/grinding their teeth, and crystal meth’s acidic effect.

So yeah, not a pretty picture.

Glass Gateway

Crystal meth has been a severe problem in Saskatchewan for a good decade now. But Fletcher says the pandemic really hit hard.

“That’s the story we heard for sure, that COVID made the situation worse for people. To begin with, there was an access issue. Then when people sought support, there were problems there, too. It took all the issues that were already present and turned them up a notch,” she says.

Glass Gateway, which is fundedby a grant from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, has recorded four episodes so far (podbay.fm/p/glass-gateway).

The podcast is hosted by Alex and Sadie. Both are in recovery. Their goal with the podcast, says Fletcher, is to share stories about the impact of crystal meth and highlight issues that they think are important.

“Intergenerational trauma, they think, is really critical to how people end up struggling with crystal meth. They see it as incredibly related, so they wanted to highlight the connection,” says Fletcher.

“I think their hope too was for people to hear that [users] are people too, just like everyone else. Often people find themselves in a set of circumstances that they have no control over. Ultimately, that can lead you to places you never imagined yourself being in,” she says.

Mental health, poverty, racism, abuse — all can be contributing factors. Sadie and Alex also talk about the social shunning that occurs, and how it creates a feeling of shame and alienation in people that fuels further drug use.

Throughout Saskatchewan’s exploding drug crisis, the Sask. Party government has steadfastly refused to fund harm reduction, opting instead to focus on treatment.

Fletcher would like to see the government rethink its approach. [see sidebar]

“All the evidence points to harm reduction being the best way forward, where we meet people’s basic needs, and let them have some agency in deciding what kind of care they want to receive. It’s really treating people with basic decency, and respecting their humanity,” she says.

“It’s tragic, really, when you think of these folks trying to seek support, and all the judgment and barriers they come up against. If you want shelter space, you can have it. But you have to be sober. Or if you want access, you can’t be using. There’s no concrete understanding of what substance use disorder really looks like, and where these people are coming from,” says Fletcher.

Complex Needs

Guided by reports from the Saskatoon Fire Department and Board of Police Commissioners, city officials there recently endorsed the idea of a 100+-bed shelter for people with complex needs tied to houselessness, addictions and mental health.

The fire department, in its report, estimated it had spent $311,951 since late 2021 tracking different encampments and people living on the street. The police commission report detailed how officers were frequently diverted to help community support workers with difficult people, and said stabilization beds — with wrap-around supports for addictions and mental health — were urgently needed.

“If politicians were true economists they would look at the cost benefit analysis and recognize that harm reduction and supporting people who have these health needs is actually a net benefit for everyone. But we’re not there yet,” says Fletcher.

Instead, communities across Saskatchewan are being ravaged and frontline workers are burning out at an alarming rate — often to the point of leaving the profession, or relocating outside the province. This, in turn, puts more stress on our already overburdened healthcare and emergency services sector.

At the federal level, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has been singing from the same hymn book as the Sask. Party government, saying that harm reduction has been an unmitigated disaster, and promising a get-tough approach should he become PM.

If Poilievre didn’t exactly promise a “War on Drugs”, the sentiment was certainly there. It was U.S. president Richard Nixon who first launched the “war” in 1971, and 50-plus years on, Poilievre and his conservative followers seem eager to continue the failed fight.

“It’s pure politicking that plays into fear-mongering, and tries to divide people and place judgment on those who use drugs,” says Fletcher.

“You can’t say harm reduction doesn’t work when we haven’t actually supported it. There are a lot of grassroots and health organizations fighting for it. But can we really say we are doing it on a national level? Definitely not. And when you look at small pockets where people are doing it, they are doing it really well,” says Fletcher.

“And that means people aren’t dying.” ■


Missed Opportunities

Treatment as a strategy to combat addiction has an instinctive appeal. Ultimately, we’d all like to see people struggling with addictions issues get treatment to live better lives.

And for a percentage of that population, treatment might be a realistic option.

But for many others it isn’t — at least, at this point in their life.

University of Regina academic Kara Fletcher says the treatment model doesn’t work for everyone.

There are several barriers, she says.

“You have to be pretty well-resourced to first locate the treatment, then travel to the treatment, and even stay in treatment,” says Fletcher. “Treatment exists for people with, not just money, but also emotional support. If you don’t have that, I think it’s unrealistic to think people will be helped by it.”

When harm reduction advocates talk about recovery, they describe it as a spectrum. They point out that everyone is at a different point in their life. That’s why programs need to be tailored to where people are.

For people with adequate financial and emotional resources behind them, treatment makes sense. But scooping someone off the street, putting them in treatment for a month, then throwing them back out on the street? Not so much.

With its focus on treatment over harm reduction, the Sask. Party government is making its priority clear, says Fletcher.

“The folks who are using are marginalized and living with a lot of systemic issues and are overlooked by government and policy already, so they just don’t get a lot of attention. Instead, the government pretends they don’t exist,” says Fletcher.

The government’s refusal to fund harm reduction has led to the situation we have today where people are dying almost daily from drug overdoses and poisonings, and we have growing social problems with people openly suffering on our streets.

Should the government ever wrap its head around the idea of investing more in harm reduction, Fletcher says the three keys to a well-designed program are catching people when they’re ready for support, letting them define the type of support they want, and permitting them to change their mind.

“For some, the idea of going into a treatment centre is scary and unappealing. But if someone comes in and says, ‘I want to meet with someone and get some support’, the ability to do that is simply not there,” she says.

“You can end up on a waitlist, or else speaking to an intake worker, and then waiting for them to call you back. For a lot of folks, that just doesn’t meet their reality, and by tomorrow that window where they are motivated and excited to get support is closed.

“It’s a missed opportunity time and time again,” says Fletcher.