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OPINION: Forced recovery is the loving thing to do

Officer Donny Mathew stands next to a person who appears to be passed out on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in downtown Portland, Ore. (File photo: Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

When addiction drags someone into homelessness from what we call a normal life, they have lost many battles.

An ultimatum came for them between the drug and other things in their life. And the drug won. Every time. To descend from a normal life into homelessness because of drug addiction, one has lost the war at every front. Their job, career, health, house, everything was sacrificed for the drug.

For that reason, British Columbia’s fix for drug addiction is ridiculous. Destigmatize and decriminalize, we hear, people will connect with services, and they will opt into sobriety.

No, they won’t.

It is illogical to approach someone and hope they will volunteer to get sober, after they were unable to do that to save their job, career, family, health, house and criminal record along the way. The people who are homeless because of their addiction are demonstrably the least successful at bootstrapping their own recovery.

At the bottom of the person’s life, B.C. offers them open doors if they want to get sober. But in exchange for turning sober, the person does not preserve custody of their child, or save their career. They wake up to have lost everything and live in wretched poverty. It is naive to expect the person to more-readily opt into sobriety at this point. It is ridiculous for our billion-dollar system to depend on unprecedented, voluntary commitment from people in the deep end of their addictions.

Oregon’s decriminalization project shows this is a bad investment.

One year into Oregon’s project, less than a per cent of all people who used harm reduction services opted themselves into treatment, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. From the pool of 16,000 people, a larger 60 per cent used programs such as syringe exchanges and naloxone distribution, according to the broadcaster. In charge of their recovery, people supported their addiction while ignoring the treatment option that was offered to them. I think we can all relate to that in some way.

After three years, Oregon plans to quit. The majority Democrats unveiled a plan to re-criminalize drugs. The new law proposed in January would introduce a 30-day jail sentence or up to $1,250 in fines for possessing illicit drugs. The person caught with drugs, however, could accept recovery treatment. The system would wipe their slate clean — it would be like they were never caught in the first place.

There’s no question why this happened. The plan didn’t work, for people to pull themselves out of addiction.

Oregon was the groundbreaking American state that led the charge on drug decriminalization. They did it two years before B.C. Now, they are backing out, and Premier David Eby said B.C. won’t follow suit this time but is pushing onward. We will continue the experiment, he said, because he believes an open-doors approach will yield better results than forced recovery.

B.C. leaders are being weak and negligent.

It might make sense to keep an open-door, hands-off policy for some people. For instance, someone with a proven track record of looking after their health. But for the person who cannot control their addiction nor break out of it alone, I think there is precedent to intervene. The person poses a risk to themselves. They die. Sometimes more than once. And if the data from Oregon shows anything, it’s that people with terminal addiction don’t turn their life around because of open doors.

There is a concept in first aid called “implied consent.” When someone is unconscious, you have consent to give aid. When they are at risk of death and unable to tell you if it’s OK to help them, you have permission. (This relates to the situation where someone can sue you for trying to help them.) I think this should be the approach in the depths of terminal addiction. Not like B.C.’s strategy of drugs free, hands off and doors open.

Nobody who witnesses a loved one in life-threatening addiction starts providing drugs and needles and hoping their family member will opt into recovery. If they truly love the person, they intervene. And tough love is often needed. When someone is drowning, at their last breath, you jump in, yank them out of the water and give them a towel on board. You don’t put a ladder on the side of the boat and tell them they can use it when they’re ready.

It’s time for the B.C. government to put away their ladders and jump in.

Connor McDowell

About the Author: Connor McDowell

Started at the Record in May 2023. He studied journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax
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