Nurses and the push for harm reduction

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Image: Piqsels

Bryce Koch is a registered nurse based in Winnipeg. He is the founder of Project Safe Audience, a harm reduction initiative based in the city's after-hours music scene, and he is on the board of directors of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association. Scott Neigh interviews him about the many ways that nurses are taking up harm-reduction practices in their work, and about the association's advocacy for governmental and institutional policies that support harm reduction and the rights and dignity of people who use drugs.

Koch first started to go to what you might variously describe as raves, music festivals, parties, and other sorts of musical events many years ago. As he got a little older and was trying to figure out what kind of work he wanted to do, he eventually ended up in nursing. And while he was studying to become a nurse, he was still going to parties.

Of course, it has been true as long as human beings have been gathering together to enjoy music that some of the people thus gathered sometimes enhance the experience by taking various substances. And when other people who went to the same events as Koch found out he was doing a nursing degree, they started to ask him questions -- what will it do if I take such-and-such an amount of this substance, what can I do to make it a little safer for myself to take that substance, what happens if I take this thing and that thing together, and so on.

Those experiences started to connect to a concept that he had heard about through his nursing education but that was never really explored in the detail that he wanted -- harm reduction. He realized there was a role for someone with his knowledge and training in those very spaces that he had been in for years, to dispel misinformation, to answer questions, to respond to overdoses and to just help people figure out how they could be safer. So he founded Project Safe Audience with some of his friends from nursing school to try and address some of those things.

At its most basic, harm reduction is the use of practical, evidence-based approaches to meet people where they're at and reduce the risks and potential harms of particular behaviours. It emerged from the social justice struggles of drug users and their allies. It can, for example, mean providing intravenous drug users with clean needles to reduce the risk of hepatitis and HIV transmission. It can mean making naloxone overdose kits and training on how to use them widely available. It can mean making testing easily available so that people can know exactly what is in what they're about to take. And it can mean struggling for larger systemic fixes that would change the laws and policies that contribute to the harms that drug users and other marginalized people face.

In his work as a registered nurse in an emergency room and more recently for a public health unit, Koch quickly realized that there are a lot of contexts where harm reduction practices are relevant to nursing. When he heard about the formation of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, he quickly signed up.

The association was founded a few years ago by Marilou Gagnon, who is currently its president. Already, it has membership across the country and it recently received its official Canadian Nurses Association designation as a nursing specialty.

The association aims to be a way for nurses and others working in the area of harm reduction to share knowledge, build skills, and connect with one another. To that end, it hosts events, talks and workshops. It had been lobbying for greater inclusion of harm reduction-related training in nursing education. And it does other kinds of advocacy work as well, depending on the needs in different regions of the country.

Koch, for instance, has been working for a better drug alert system in Manitoba. Currently, to get drugs tested for toxic impurities in Manitoba can take months. In the context of ongoing deaths related to unsafe drug supplies, the hope is to establish a program like those already present in some other provinces which allow people to have drugs tested while they wait. Nurses in Ontario are involved in advocacy to support overdose prevention sites, while in B.C. they are advocating for a safer drug supply and for decriminalization.

Image: Piqsels

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 our website here. You can also follow us 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, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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