Drug Use is a Health Issue, Not a Moral Issue



We can all help prevent overdose deaths and help those who have lost loved ones to overdose deaths

by Dr. Evan Adams, CMO, FNHA

Today, August 31, is International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual global event that aims to raise awareness about drug-related deaths, including how to prevent them from happening and how to reverse them in the case of an overdose. It is also a day for those of us who have lost loved ones in this manner to acknowledge the grief we feel; empathize with the grief felt by families and friends who have lost loved ones; and honour the lives that have been lost.

This year, BC has seen over 400 overdose deaths. As a First Nations physician, I care deeply about our communities and want to take this opportunity to share two very important messages with our people and communities. 

The first message is that people who struggle with addictions need to be supported—not shamed—as do those who have lost loved ones to overdose deaths. We need to remember that they are fully human, with stories, loved ones and spirits. We have learned that stigma around drug use can actually cause more deaths, as shamed people can become more reluctant to discuss their challenges with addictions or seek medical help.

The second message is that overdose deaths can be prevented, even when a person has actually overdosed. Everyone should know how to recognize an overdose and be prepared to help someone who has overdosed. Please read on, with an open heart and mind, for more information on both of these important messages.

How a non-judgmental attitude can help save lives

At the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), we believe that people who struggle with addictions need our support, not our judgment. In addition to expressing love and kindness to our fellow human beings, the reason we advocate having a non-judgmental attitude toward drug use is that destigmatizing drug use can actually save lives. The bottom line is that the people in our lives who struggle with addictions need to feel that they are safe with us and that their lives are valued.

In health care and social services, this kind of perspective is part of a public health philosophy and set of interventions known as a "harm-reduction approach." Of course, in the long term we would want every community to be drug-free. But realistically, a harm reduction intervention is necessary to save lives. This approach seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use by providing factual education about drug use, drug-related illness and injury prevention and to offer effective drug treatments and other necessary health care services.

In other words, with this approach we are focused on learning and talking about how to keep ourselves, our families and friends safe. We understand drug use as a health issue rather than a moral issue.

How an overdose can be prevented or reversed

The FNHA is working alongside its partners to provide First Nations communities with the medication that reverses the effects of overdose from opioid drugs and saves lives. This injectable medication is known as "Naloxone," and in response to the current public health overdose emergency in BC, it is now available in a Take-Home Naloxone Kit, for use by anyone in the province. Make it a part of your first aid kit. Having this medication on hand and knowing how to use it can save a life.

The FNHA is also training community members on how to use the kits, including today in Williams Lake. The kits are available at 332 harm-reduction sites across BC: find a site near you at 

https://towardtheheart.com/site-locatorPlease speak to your community health nurse if you have family members or are connected to community members who are using substances. Kits are also available at most BC pharmacies, with no prescription needed, and Naloxone is a covered by the First Nations Health Benefits program.

There are other lifesaving techniques that we can all become familiar with. Just as we have memorized 911, learned CPR and become accustomed to wearing seatbelts, now we can memorize "SAVE ME," an acronym for six simple steps that prevent overdose deaths—Stimulate, Airway, Ventilate,Evaluate, Muscular Injection, Evaluate (whether a second dose is required). 

Download, print and share an FNHA poster that has the SAVE ME steps here.

Take action today

This year, the FNHA has joined the silver ribbon campaign for International Overdose Awareness Day. You can show your support by wearing the silver campaign pin or other silver clothing or accessories, having deliberate conversations about Naloxone and overdose death prevention with family and friends, watching this how-to Naloxone video and/or by engaging with the FNHA on social media.

Initiating conversations about drug use with our family and friends can be difficult—but we need to engage in this sometimes uncomfortable dialogue with each other to support one another and potentially save lives. Let's take care of each other and support those in our lives and communities who need it most with understanding, love and patience—and without judgment—while working toward building safe and healthy communities.

We are all connected. Please remember that simply having an open mind and non-judgmental attitude toward people using drugs may help save their lives—and save their loved ones from lifetimes of pain. And please remember to add Naloxone to your first aid kit.


Be Well,

Dr. Evan Adams
Chief Medical Officer
First Nations Health Authority

Visit www.fnha.ca/overdose for more information on substance use prevention and treatment

Visit www.gov.bc.ca/overdose for more information and resources  

Visit www.towardtheheart.com to access Naloxone and harm reduction supplies

Watch the "S.A.V.E. M.E. Steps to Save a Life" video: