In Vancouver, there is no lack of awareness that we are in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis. With roughly four individuals in BC losing their lives to a drug overdose every day, many of us have been personally affected in some way by this crisis. Although we often see coverage of the opioid crisis in the news, what we rarely see is how students and young people in BC are experiencing this crisis. But, this isn’t because students aren’t affected. In November, members of CSSDP UBC helped facilitate naloxone training for over 100 students at UBC. There was such high demand for this event that the student society had to schedule another naloxone training party a few weeks later. Despite this, there is still a level of stigma attached to openly discussing experiences with opioids and other illicit drugs. We wanted to change that.

Our chapter received a community grant from UVic’s Canadian Institute of Substance Use Research (CISUR) to organize a community dialogue on opioids. CISUR’s vision of a dialogue involves bringing together individuals who may hold diverse opinions and perspectives to engage in a two-way exchange of knowledge with the goal of developing a better understanding of each other. We knew that we wanted to bring students together to share their experiences and opinions on various aspects of the opioid crisis, and we decided that art would be a great way to draw in students and stimulate these important conversations. We put out a call for artists to submit work related to opioids or drugs more generally, and within a few weeks, we had received multiple submissions!

On March 28th, we turned a public study space at UBC’s student union building into a pop-up art gallery. The gallery, showcasing a diverse selection of art, exemplified the wide-reaching impact the crisis has had on young people in BC. The gallery featured two photo series that depicted two very different views on drug use. One was a series of photos from a photovoice project entitled “Living in the Best Place on Earth”, led by medical anthropologist Danya Fast. This project involved marginalized youth on the downtown eastside using photography to capture their day-to-day interactions with various social and physical spaces that shape their risk of drug-related harm. The other photo series, entitled “The Good Side of Drug Use”, was created by CSSDP member and UBC anthropology doctoral student Hilary Agro and vibrantly depicted portraits of friends and new acquaintances who use drugs. This series, which was set at Burning Man, was shown to help destigmatize drug use by reminding us that many different people use drugs for a variety of reasons including pleasure and social connectedness.

Emily Carr student Dani Martire showed two installation art pieces made from one medical patient’s year’s worth of pharmaceutical prescription sheets and medication instructions. These pieces highlighted the challenges of navigating the medical system and how this struggle can be tightly linked with addiction. Vancouver Community College student Mildred German showed an oil painting that colourfully and powerfully illustrated the devastating role that social stigma plays in the opioid crisis.

UBC art graduate Emma Windsor-Liscombe installed a large floating scroll that depicted stages along the life of her cousin, who died tragically from an opioid overdose. Emma’s six illustrations across the scroll were in the style of ancient tomb artwork, illustrating her cousin’s struggle with addiction that started with being the victim of sexual violence at age 13. Finally, Seattle artist Aurora Bartells, showed three illustrations that reflect on the experience of opioid addiction from her recovery perspective.

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We hosted roundtables with artists and attendees within the gallery space to provide an opportunity for students and young people to discuss how the crisis has impacted them and those around them, particularly in the context of being a student. We exchanged ideas about ways to move forward for a healthier and safer environment on campus during this crisis. In these discussions, students acknowledged that drugs are often used non-problematically and for a variety of reasons, but this fact doesn’t seem to shape the way many universities approach or respond to drug use. At a time when students may be at increased risk of harm from drug use that would generally be considered non-problematic in the absence of the opioid crisis, a take-away from these conversations was that campuses should have a spectrum of resources in place for students, from those who use drugs occasionally and without problems to those looking for help.

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See the Ubyssey’s coverage of the event here.

If your chapter is interested in using art as a stimulus for dialogue around drugs and drug policy, feel free to contact Stephanie Lake, CSSDP board member and chapter president for CSSDP UBC: stephanie@cssdp.org.

Stephanie Lake

Stephanie Lake

Stephanie is a doctoral student in population and public health at the University of British Columbia, where she is currently undertaking research to better understand the links between cannabis, opioids, and drug-related morbidity.
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