Cops Are a Cause: “Understanding the Overdose and Opioid Epidemic.” Science World. February 28, 2018
By Jeff Shantz
Policing kills. It was significant that this basic, but often avoided, truth was stated so clearly and honestly at the “Understanding the Overdose and Opioid Epidemic” event at Science World. Criminalization and prohibition are causes of the crises that are taking so many lives. This must be acknowledged and police institutions and agents made accountable for it. As police continue to drain resources away from public and social health supports that would actually be useful and as realities and fears of criminalization continue to cost lives, it must be said openly—cops are the cause not the cure.
This truth is too little spoken, particularly in mainstream venues like Science World. So it was striking and important to here this said directly by participants at the “Understanding the Overdose and Opioid Epidemic” panel discussion. Dr. Mark Tyndall said very pointedly that criminalization and prohibition are at the root of all of this. That, fundamentally, is what has to be fixed.
Other participants in the event, Sarah Blyth, Patrick Smith of Culture Saves Lives, and Erica Thomson, touched on this issue in various ways. The panel included one cop, VPD Sergeant Mike Wheeler, and he too admitted that criminalization is regressive, but seemed unaware of ongoing repressive policing in the downtown eastside or was unwilling to address the fact (and the negative role of police more broadly).
Scott Sampson of Science World introduced the event by saying that it is the first public event in the institution’s efforts to rethink what role Science World should fill over the next generation. After a broad consultation process in which hundreds of people gave insight, it was determined that Science World needs to address pressing issues if social concerns for the local community. They need to contribute to creating a new world.
In asking what the most pressing needs are it was clear that the opioid ad overdose crises are having a massive toll on communities all over so-called British Columbia. This event was the first foray in transforming Science World into a “convening hub” for change in the community.
The event consisted of short opening statements by panelists and some follow up questions by host Don Schafer. Questions then moved to the audience.
First up was Dr. Mark Tyndall. He stressed that the work people do is not giving up on people. So many people need time. And we need to give them more time.
He pointed out that for every person who died, about 20 more people overdosed—that is, they almost died. This is more than traffic accidents, more than homicides, more than suicides. The relative death toll is astronomical in his words. And it impacts communities throughout British Columbia.
Tyndall referenced some terrible statistics, which had been provided in a handout to audience members. Eighty percent who died are men. Eighty percent are between 20-49 years in age. About 70 percent never had a chance to call for help. They were alone and isolated. Many have been saved from naloxone and most is administered by people in the community saving their friends and neighbors. Not by official institutions.
Tyndall emphasized that how we refer to people is so important. We have to roll back stigma. People who use drugs should be treated with respect. They should not be referred to and dismissed as junkies, abusers, druggies. Sadly, but not surprisingly I have had students tell me that police officers who “teach” in our criminology classrooms use these terms regularly and without self-awareness.
Sarah Blyth told the audience that we need to have the bravery to do something different, not keep doing the same thing we have done for 100 years (i.e. criminalization). That is key. The community overdose prevention sites have been part of a different way of thinking.
She said that she and others started the overdose prevention site at the downtown eastside street market because there were increasing numbers of people overdosing. There were people overdosing all day, everyday. So they put a tent in the most used alley where people were using drugs, they were aiding people in the alley. Now they see 400 to 500 people every day, with as many as 700 in one day. She reported they have seen about 10,000 people overall. They have saved around 500 lives.
Patrick Smith is with Culture Saves Lives who gave the evening a powerful and rising start with their singing and drumming. He made clear that what is most important is sovereignty and self-determination. We should not impose dominant values. What is needed is cultural justice. We need to operate on principles of equity. We also need to shine light where it does not usually go. He noted that the drummers have shown up for so many memorials and it is hard on them. He was strong in saying that culture had sustained Indigenous people through a previous genocide and it will carry them through this.
Erica Thomson, someone I greatly respect and have worked with on events in Surrey, spoke of overcoming stigma and the importance of lived experience and commonality. There is a special scope of peer practice and understanding for each other. She reminded the audience that drug users are divers and people in recovery are diverse. There is a need for diverse choices—which are not there in the system. She goes into her work with the idea that people know what is best for them. She feels safest and most belonging most in groups of drug users, like VANDU (the Vancouver Network of Drug Users). She said we need to remove deserving and undeserving labels.
On Policing and Crisis
Criminalization has driven people underground. It leads to lonely, isolated people using drugs alone. And not even telling friends or colleagues because of criminalization fears and stigmas. Erica Thomson challenged the audience to ask what was behind drug policy in the first place. It certainly was not concern for peoples health.
While Sergeant Wheeler tried to suggest the Vancouver Police Department is not criminalizing drug use anymore, Blyth reported, what people in the downtown eastside confirm, that for a month or so prior to the event date there has been a lot of police street activity around small level dealers being targeted. That is in no way a step forward.
Unfortunately Sergeant Wheeler made the police appeal, once again, for more resources and more cops to target and process larger dealers. Tyndall noted that for every drug bust celebrated in the media, that is 50 people who lost their trusted dealer and will have to turn to less safe, unknown, sources. He stressed too that the issue is demand driven not supply driven. It will not be stopped by shutting down dealers as so many seem to hope. It will still get out.
Dr. Tyndall asked how it became that 300 deaths a few years earlier became almost 1500 deaths last year? His answer is that criminalization and prohibition drove the market into fentanyl. Policing squeezed the market into all sorts of unsafe chemicals.
It was brought up be a member of the audience that policing is racist and disproportionately processing people on a racialized basis. Without acknowledging this Sergeant Wheeler admitted cops have a great range of discretion. Of course. Smith was more direct and said we have to name systemic racism and confront that it is alive and well in every institution in Canada. Indeed, Canada is founded on white supremacy.
Erica Thomson insisted that peers need to be supported and employed to bring their experiences and perspectives into the decisional positions. Tyndall tied the exclusion of peers into criminalization. People cannot get a voice and be empowered if they are hiding or being viewed as “criminals.” Tyndall also pointed out that there are no supports for people released from incarceration. And there are many overdoses of people after leaving prison. We must provide health care and social supports. And, even more, stop jailing people especially given that most people are incarcerated for non-violent, property, victimless, consumption, and administrative “offenses.”
What is needed is proper housing, medical care, access to safe drugs and medical doses. Blyth stressed that medical provision could be done in the community right now.
Tyndall noted that policy makers say the public is not ready for this. But they haven’t asked the public. He noted that every death is predictable given the social context of inaccessible and inadequate housing, social inequality, personal and community trauma, etc. Social needs for health care and housing can be met but are not for political reasons. These are fixable but will require mobilizing to secure.
On the whole it says plenty that the only contribution that Sergeant Wheeler, or anyone else present, could see police making to alleviate the crises, was to stop criminalizing people. That is to stop being police (though Wheeler did not put it in that light). It tells us a lot that the only contribution police can make is negative (subtractive) rather than positive (additive). They need to go away. They need to dissolve themselves. And their funds need to be redistributed to people and organizations that can actually help our communities.
Police are always made to feel too comfortable, their demands are always met. They are included in policy solutions discussions by politicians and business improvement associations seeking to preserve their political or economic capital. And in so doing police are able to diversify themselves and remarket themselves by expanding into areas they have no place being—like health care, harm reduction, housing. And people and groups that can provide these do without or face cuts to budgets and programs.
Instead police need to be made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, their demands (for resources, funds, for inclusion) refused and rejected. They need to be addressed as the very causes of the problems we so desperately need to solve. In defunding police we need to fund proper community and social services.