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Looking at harm reduction from a Christian perspective

So Calgary has stopped giving out free crack pipes as part of it’s harm reduction strategy.

Free crack pipeSince 2008, Alberta Health Services had been giving out crack-pipe kits as part of the Safeworks program, an effort to reduce transmittable diseases. The kits contained a glass pipe, mouthpiece and cleaning tool and were handed out in an AHS van.

More than 14,500 crack pipes were given out as of June 2011.

However, AHS has discontinued the Safeworks crack-pipe program as of Tuesday, citing the “potential for a legal challenge with respect to distribution.”

Tim Richter, Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO, said the program was an effective first step in engaging hardcore, street-involved crack addicts.

“We’re disappointed the program has been cancelled in the fashion it was,” Richter said. “Harm reduction and giving these crack pipes out was good, smart public health.

“It seems like a knee-jerk reaction on fairly simplistic moralistic ground.”

Some groups, including the Calgary Police Association, recently expressed concerns with the Safeworks program prior to its cancellation. CPA president John Dooks said it set a dangerous precedent.

“It’s implying you can use elicit drugs or unlawful drugs in a safe manner,” Dooks said. “The message should be there is no safe way to use drugs,”

I grew up and still am an evangelical Christian.  My grandmother was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Saskatchewan and I work for the Salvation Army which coined the phrase “demon rum”.  Being against harm reduction and all for abstinence is in my DNA.   I hate what the drugs do to people.  I see it every day but for that very reason, I am for harm reduction.  Here’s why.  By the virtue that people are coming for free crack pipes, they are doing two things.  Realizing that things are out of control and putting themselves in contact with the very people that can help them.  That’s why Insite works.  Insite isn’t for just any heroin addict.  It’s for the addicts that realize that they need help and can’t continue on the path that they are on.  Insite isn’t a destination, it’s the start of the journey.  The same is with grabbing a crack pipe from a street worker, they are admitting that something is wrong and taking a small step in the right direction.

In Saskatoon there is still some debate about needle distribution, a debate I can’t understand, even from a Christian perspective.  You have drug users using dirty needles, passing them around, getting high.  Statistics tell us that they are at a very high risk of contracting HIV or Hep C, both are costly diseases to fight and we know many users don’t fight it.  As a friend who runs another agency once told me, up to half of our mutual clients have untreated HIV/Aids on any given night.  The more I think about it, the more I agree with her.  As a Christian who wants the best for them, by taking the needles/crack pipes away, we are just complicating things.  I am increasing the risk of a disease that will hinder them rest of their lives or shorten it drastically.  A lack of harm reduction options increases healthcare costs in addition to lost potential due to a shortness of life or a diminished capacity for life.  

The main reason to do so doesn’t seem to be a legal reason or even a moralistic one, it seems to be driven out of societies dislike and discomfort with addicts and their lifestyles and a desire to punish them.  If I can nuance Tim Richter’s stance, this isn’t about a moral stand, it’s a puritan stand, one that says that people that do wrong must be punished.

In my years of working at the Salvation Army, I have known one guy that enjoyed being an addict.  The rest hate it and want out but can’t do it yet.  On my walks home I run into a client who for years was an ass to deal with.  Was always angry at me, always yelling, and threatening.  One night he walked in and was clean of the drugs and was quite a nice guy.  Entirely different.  Part of his path out his hell was harm reduction.  He’s been clean (and struggling) ever since then.  He rents a place not far from me and is scraping out a legit existence doing a variety of jobs.  He stops by to chat when he sees that Wendy and I are around and stops by Wendy’s work to say hello to her.  Every time I see him he is always telling me that he is amazed that his drugs didn’t destroy his relationship with the Salvation Army and myself and goes on to say over and over again, how they destroyed almost everything else in his life.  His story isn’t unique.  I could insert in a variety of names and contexts into that story and the pain is always the same. 

When we look at drugs users, the explanation is that it is either a personal choice or they have a low genetic tolerance towards it (in describing Aboriginal Drug Abuse).  Both of these answers have the same underlying principle, it’s not my fault or responsibility.  One thing we overlook is the societal aspect of drug and alcohol abuse.  Drug and alcohol abuse on reserves was not a problem until the Residential Schools opened (The damage was done to those taken and those left behind.  How would you handle it if the RCMP took your children a part of a government policy.  I know I would be seriously messed up if I lost Ollie and Mark).  Now I do meet some men and women that came from extremely stable households who for whatever reason decided to self destruct with drugs as a personal lifestyle choice but for the most part the drug use is a result of escaping horrible family situations, mental health issues and is a part of concurrent disorders.  In other words the kind of individuals that we as a society have an obligation to help the most.  For decades Canada has had a social safety net for those that need this kind of help.  It has generally come in the form of healthcare or Social Assistance but as the drugs have become more potent and addictive, the solutions are more complicated as well.  Harm reduction works.  It’s not about the pipe, it’s about the pathway out the personal hell they are living in.  Alberta Health was wrong to back down and all of Albertans will pay the costs.  It’s my Christian faith that calls out for harm reduction strategies, it’s fear and a lack of grace that fights against them.

Notes:

1. My grandmother would be totally opposed to EVERYTHING that I wrote in this post.

2. I believe the phrase demon rum should be used more often than it is.  I try to use it as much as I can at work but to be honest, no one drinks rum anymore and it seems awfully judgemental to say about anything else.

5 Comments

  1. […] Christian look at harm reduction Posted on August 21, 2011 by Wendy Cooper TweetJordon has a good look at harm reduction from a Christian perspective. this isn’t about a moral stand, it’s a puritan stand, one that says that people that do wrong […]

  2. Louise G. says:

    Hi Jordan — Great article and I really appreciate your stance from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Your open-mindedness is very refreshing! I had an Op-Ed in the Calgary Herald yesterday on the subject as well.

    http://www.calgaryherald.com/Gallagher+Free+crack+cocaine+pipes+enable+saving+lives/5284982/story.html#ixzz1Vm4qiiBG

  3. […] The Star Phoenix ran an opinion piece by Jordon Cooper on harm reduction that was adapted from his blog. […]

  4. harm reduction says:

    Hey,
    While I appreciate how difficult it may be to reconcile your religious beliefs with what you see works for people on a daily basis, I want to let you know that being NONJUDGMENTAL is an important part of Harm Reduction. So the more you say that drug use is wrong, addiction is self-destruction, etc. the more you work to stigmatize and isolate drug users. If you are a proponent of harm reduction, please learn more abut the philosophy and adopt a welcoming attitude as well. No more stigma for the marginalized. And, neither you or I can choose whose life has been “horrible” enough to use drugs. All sorts of people use all sorts of drugs for all sorts of reasons. Understanding that is also a way of reducing harm.

  5. Trevortni says:

    How is it possible to practice harm reduction without an understanding of what constitutes harm?

    The indisputable fact is that addiction is self-destructive; stigma is irrelevant in that regard. The “welcoming attitude” and the reduction of stigma comes not from the lie that drug addiction is somehow “okay” (suggesting that does actually make you a horrible person, and defeats the entire intent of harm reduction), but from the recognition that the person caught up in the death-grip of drug addiction is still a human being who has value, and is worth taking the time to make sure they live to see another day in which they can make choices, maybe even the choices that will lead them to a way out of the pit they have found themselves in.

    BTW, I for one don’t see any difficulty in reconciling biblical religious beliefs with this, merely difficulty in getting through to those beliefs through the veneer of what people have told you your religious beliefs “should” consist of.

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