Treating Substance Use Disorder

Decriminalizing the Small Possession of Hard Drugs

On January 31, 2023, adults 18 years and older who live in British Colombia will no longer be arrested or charged for possessing small amounts of drugs—as long as it is less than 2.5 grams.  The provincial government of British Colombia decided to take a big step forward in changing the context around how we interact with individuals that are trying to break free from the chains of addiction.

Understanding Substance Use Disorder

Before we understand what addiction is, it is important to start off by identifying what it is not.  A powerful description I remember coming across explained that addiction was not a moral failing, a choice, or a character flaw.  It was not the result of a lack of will power.

Addiction is an illness commonly referred to as a substance use disorder.  It should not be seen as acute illness but rather a chronic disease that impacts the brain.  Although a long-term battle with substance use can result in physical changes in brain composition along with other serious health complications, it is curable.

A 2012 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey estimated that around 20% of Canada’s population met the criteria for a substance use disorder.  That means one in every five people we come across are likely to be struggling with substance use, and we have a population of almost 40 million.  Once a person is addicted, that is, have a substance use disorder, they are not using substances to feel good but rather to feel ‘normal’.  Think about that for a second, and the fact that one in five Canadians are likely to be struggling with substance use.

Breaking the Chains of Addiction

The approach to helping a person break the chains of addiction often involves understanding their brain chemistry and lived experiences.  It is said that most people who begin to experiment with substances and develop addiction are looking to heal.  The biggest challenge in beginning the road to recovery is that people tend to struggle to come to terms that they have an addiction.

An addicted brain looks different under brain imaging scans, and those differences in the brain bring about behavioral changes that are mainly compulsive and destructive.  When addiction fully takes over a person, their entire life begins to revolve around their cravings for substances and avoiding the withdrawal from not having any.  It takes a lot more than will power to overcome the chemical brain changes brought about by substance use.  That recovery process includes being provided prescribed medications and slowly lowering dosage levels, but safe sites are a necessary component to increase the odds of full recovery.

Getting the Rest of Canada to Buy In

Some people argue that the way to deal with substance abuse it deterrence—make the punishments severe enough that people will fear the consequences enough to stop.  But, to date, what positive changes have harsh consequences, punishments and shame had on a person’s addiction?  I applaud British Colombia for deciding to decriminalize the small possession of hard drugs.  By changing the context in which we react to people that are engaging in the use of hard drugs and likely struggling with other health problems, we create a user-friendly environment where health supports are accessible and plentiful.

Addiction has always been an illness, even during the times that society was most hostile to the thought of it being anything other than a sign of a weak person.  A person might make the decision to use a substance for the first time, but nobody wants for their life to spiral out of control.

If you are like me and you believe that people across all lines of difference deserve to be treated with dignity and have a chance to reach their full potential, supporting changes that have the potential to help people recover and live a life of purpose is a no-brainer.  We never leave people behind or give up on them especially when they have a fighting chance, and people in Canada always have a fighting chance.