An enlightened conversation about harm reduction amid the rise of meth use and Canada’s drug poisoning crisis
As meth use appears on the rise in Canada, in this encore episode on gay men using methamphetamine, James Watson talks to Nick Boyce and Colin Johnson—a harm reduction professional and peer educator respectively—about their approach and philosophy on safer drug use.
For them, it’s not about whether a person is using or not, but on the overall wellness and quality of life for that individual. “It’s the substance users’ leading the way…” they emphasize. Yet,with drug use on the rise—and stimulants playing a growing role in the drug poisoning crisis—the playing field is far from even.
Our episode guests
Director, Ontario Harm Reduction Network
Nick has been working in the harm reduction movement for 20 years. He is the Director of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network, a Board Member with Addictions and Mental Health Ontario and is someone who uses illegal drugs but, as a cis-gender gay white male, recognizes the privilege this affords him around his drug use.
Your success is not based on whether you're using or not, it's about overall wellness and quality of your life. And that can include using or not using. If your goal is abstinence, or if you want to quit, we'll support you around that. But we'll also talk about the other options out there…
Gay rights activist and Harm Reduction Peer Educator
Colin immigrated to Canada in 1972 from Jamaica and is an outspoken advocate for gay rights. Diagnosed HIV-positive in 1984, he is committed to addressing HIV stigma by sharing his own journey. Colin is a human rights advocate, especially where it impacts Black and gay issues. Colin is a Co-Facilitator with the Ontario Harm Reduction Network and sits on the Board of Directors of the Prisoner AIDS Support Network.
So I think it's really important to acknowledge that A) we use substances and B) there are people like me who use substances, and are productive.
Nick has been working in the harm reduction movement for 20 years. He is the Director of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network and a Board Member with Addictions and Mental Health Ontario. Nick is someone who uses illegal drugs but, as a cis-gender gay white male, recognizes the privilege this affords him around his drug use. Colin Johnson joins Nick in the pozcast interview. As a HIV-positive, black gay man, a human rights advocate and a co-facilitator with the Ontario Harm Reduction Network, Colin is committed to addressing HIV stigma by sharing his journey. He also discloses his use of injection drugs, with crystal meth being Colin’s drug of choice.
Nick defines Harm Reduction as a philosophical approach to understanding drug use and working with people who use drugs. He points out that it’s a health and social issue, rather than a criminal or moral one.
As Nick describes some of the pharmacological impacts of crystal meth, he is mindful not to create hierarchies around drugs and labeling one drug worse than another. Doing so can be stigmatizing, he points out. That being said, Nick does highlight two notable differences between meth and other drugs:
- The large amounts of dopamine released while using the drug, and
- The long “half-life” or length of time it takes to get rid of the drug from your body.
Colin joins the conversation to say that it’s important for people to understand that people can use substances, including crystal meth, and still go along with their lives. He emphasizes that more black people like him should speak publicly about substance use because it’s not often acknowledged in his community. By talking about it openly, he says, supports can be made available to those who do have problems with their use.
Later in the episode Colin explains the trajectory of his drug use, from dancing and social connection in the 70s, to looking for an escape from reality with crystal meth after testing HIV-positive. Colin claims that he is better able to manage his substance use now because he was educated about responsible drug use by his community peers in the past. This is something he feels is lacking in today’s society.
Nick also discusses the importance of language when operating within a harm reduction philosophy, and describes how we need to move away from labeling to people-centered language. We need to be more mindful of the impact that stigmatizing language can have, and the subtleties that language can impart. If a social worker calls a person who uses substances a “junkie”, well that might be the end of that conversation (even before it started).
A Harm Reduction framework doesn’t focus on whether a person is using or not, but it focuses on the overall wellness and quality of life for that individual. Nick elaborates to say that this can include abstinence, if that is the person’s goal, but other options will be discussed, as well. With Harm Reduction, he points out, it’s the substance users leading the way.
The interview wraps up with advice from both Nick and Colin on what to do if a person is struggling with their meth use and is seeking advice.
Here’s a list of a few additional resources suggested by Nick: