When I was 16, I overdosed on drugs. I wasn’t an underage youth taking illegal drugs from unsafe street sources without the appropriate knowledge, but a new and confused chronic pain patient looking for relief from the only easily accessible medication I had access to – Advil. My experience, although a far cry from the overdose crises throughout Canada and the US, especially considering the current fentanyl epidemic, is intertwined with how we view and handle drug abuse, how our medical system inadvertently creates addiction, and how we can better support those who need and want to use drugs.
12 years ago, I was paralyzed from my ribs-down after a botched back operation for scoliosis. In the hospital, I was given morphine, but the side effects were greater than the pain. I was prescribed a few pills, but really didn’t find them effective. When I was discharged 6 months later, there was very little support for the chronic pain that started slowly and silently in the months that followed. Pain became a torrential downpour on my body – from nerve pain down my legs, to spasms up my spine, to chronic migraines. As a teenager, I didn’t know how to relieve the pain – maybe half a bottle of Advil over the period of 24 hours would help? I was carted to the hospital by ambulance, and told I was put on the list for a liver transplant. I had overdosed.
Clearly, I didn’t die. I also found a solution for my chronic pain that has limited negative side effects, and from which there has never been a lethal overdose – medical cannabis. Fortunately, cannabis is a medical solution for a lot of patients – but it’s not for everyone. Considering fentanyl is now prescribed for the multi-layered and sometimes simply excruciating full-body pain I suffer from on a daily basis, I know how lucky I am to have found relief in a substance that works for me. Not everyone is so lucky, and that’s why the cannabis conversation is only the beginning. Often, addiction and eventual overdose starts from a medical prescription, and escalates to sources only available through prohibition. Other times, it’s about not knowing the effects of a drug, or not knowing it’s purity, and not having access to those educational resources. The point is not to judge and criminalize those that use drugs, but to help through our school and medical systems. Just say know, and remember that evidence-based information is the best prevention of overdoses.
As a youth that nearly lost her life due to improper drug knowledge, limited support, and minimal understanding of drug effects, I know first hand how important it is to be heard on how drug and health policies effect youth – if only to reduce harm. CSSDP is co-hosting Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century to help give youth a voice on cannabis in particular – but the conversation only begins with cannabis. Through open dialogue and debate we hope to raise awareness about overdoses, about addiction, and about sensible drug policy. What’s next for drug policy in Canada after cannabis legalization? Only time will tell, but at least we’re taking the steps towards change, talking about drugs and drug policy with our parents, professors, politicians and peers, becoming aware of the social impacts of criminalizing drug users under prohibition, and making life-saving solutions like naloxone readily available.
This International Overdose Awareness Day, let’s support both those who choose to and those who need to use drugs with knowledge and understanding, provide youth with the appropriate education and tools to make informed decisions, and remember those who overdosed and passed away, and the lives that are impacted every day.