Speaking out against Canada's drug war

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Image: Photo by Alexander B. Kim. Used with permission.

Garth Mullins is an activist and organizer who has been part of many different movements, as well as a freelance journalist and an award-winning broadcaster. He has been a drug user for most of his adult life -- primarily heroin in his younger years and methadone today -- and he is currently a drug user activist. Scott Neigh interviews him about the drug war in Canada, about drug user organizing and about his new podcast Crackdown.

Canada is in the midst of an overdose crisis so severe that it has been identified by Statistics Canada as a leading factor in the first instance in almost 40 years that life expectancy in this country has not increased from one year to the next. Despite this, public conversations about how to respond to the crisis not only rarely centre the voices of the people who are most directly impacted -- that is, drug users themselves -- they often don't include them at all.

Today's guest identifies the current crisis as the latest phase in a drug war that has been going on in Canada for over a century. In 1908, the federal government passed the first piece of legislation criminalizing certain substances and certain practices. This, in turn, transformed entire categories of people into criminals overnight.

This initial legislation was passed as part of a moment of racist social panic among white elites in Vancouver associating the presence of East Asian people with the consumption of opium. In the decades since, the harmful impacts of the drug war have continued to fall disproportionately on people who are some combination of racialized (particularly Black), Indigenous, and poor. These impacts include heightened surveillance, the associated harassment and violence from police, and the harms of arrest and incarceration themselves. They also include a whole spectrum of indirect consequences, such as harsh social stigma, barriers to accessing employment, healthcare, and other services, and vastly increased risks from unsafe drug supplies and from the circumstances in which people are forced to consume them. All of these harms and all of these barriers, which are put in drug users' lives to a great extent via state action, mean more suffering and more death.

The first arrest to occur in Canada under drug-war legislation took place in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver over a century ago. The Downtown Eastside continues to be a crucial epicentre not only of the drug war, not only of the constant deaths from the current overdose crisis, but of organized resistance by drug users and their allies. Such organizing first became visible in Vancouver during an earlier and more localized overdose crisis in the 1990s. It included drug users coming together to support each other, to engage in policy advocacy around things like harm reduction and decriminalization, to found organizations, and to organize safe consumption sites. In today's overdose crisis, such activities continue across the country.

The Crackdown podcast launched in January 2019. Its focus is "the drug war, covered by drug users as war correspondents," and it is based in the Downtown Eastside. Mullins is the host and executive producer, but the show is guided by a larger team of people with lived experience in the trenches of the drug war. Each episode is a top-notch audio documentary that explores the issues with a rare sophistication and depth, and does so in a way that centres those who are directly affected. Episodes so far have focsed on things like safe injection sites, the complex issue of "blame," and the experiment with decriminalization in Portugal. Future episodes will examine gender and the drug war, the impact of colonization, housing, employment, and much more.

One of the key accomplishments of drug user organizing since the 1990s has been to create opportunities for drug users to come together, to break isolation, and to push back against shame and stigma as they fight against the ongoing harms of the drug war. Mullins sees Crackdown as part of this tradition, and part of growing efforts across the country to win not just harm reduction and decriminalization, but a new society which prioritizes justice and human needs.

Image: Photo by Alexander B. Kim. Used with permission.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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