Pique N Your Interest 

Let's talk about teenage heroin users and save a few lives

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Silence equals death. This is not a column about AIDS, but about kids using heroin in a small town. But indulge me, there is a connection.

Silence equals death was the battle cry of AIDS activists in the early ’90s. Suddenly the love that dare not speak its name wouldn’t shut up. It was everywhere. On TV, in magazines and newspapers and in people’s minds awareness grew about the reality of living with AIDS.

Why that catchall was so effective in motivating people to break silence is that it was true. Unless gays, lesbians and their allies spoke up about the need for more funding, the need to release experimental drugs and the need to recognize people with AIDS as people first, then more people were going to die. (For AIDS was at that time, as it continues to be in Canada and many parts of the U.S., a predominantly gay man’s disease.) In breaking the silence, we would be giving life a chance even if we could not eradicate death.

Fifteen years later, AIDS still kills, but "gays and lesbians" have replaced "homosexual community" in most media and gay marriage is a given in many places in the world and on the table in many surprising locales.

A couple of weeks ago someone told me that heroin is readily available in Pemberton to high school kids. I was shocked. Ten years ago, I remember reports of heroin in suburban Vancouver high schools. But Pemberton?

To be clear: I am not an anti-drug zealot, I’m just an anti-death booster. And when it comes to hard drugs, such as heroin, they have a far greater track record for snuffing out life than soft drugs.

Let’s look at soft drugs: marijuana, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Alcohol and tobacco, two of the legal drugs in the group, can kill you. But really, unless you’re a maniac on a mission to swill 40 ounces are you going to die the first time you try booze? Ditto when it comes to cigarettes, unless you choose to eat them, which after the age of three is highly unlikely.

Heroin is another matter. You can OD the first time and addiction, whether you ingest the drug by sniffing it, smoking it or shooting it, can be swift.

By comparison, caffeine seems so benign as to not warrant inclusion on my list. However, when I once undertook an ill-advised experiment to stop drinking coffee for the purpose of better health it was a hellish experience that resulted in a low-grade headache that lasted for three days, nausea and a desire to rip the heads off kittens. It was not pretty.

Quitting cigarettes was even more fun. Ten years, at least a half-dozen serious tries all sabatoged by the, "Hey, I can have just one" mentality. Finally the depth of my pathetic addiction hit me while sitting in a greasy spoon across from a Shopper’s Drugmart, drinking dishwater coffee and waiting for the doors to swing open. I walked into the drugstore and picked up a box of patches. Of course, it wasn’t just the wracking hack or greasy cafe bottoming out incident that made me quit, I had been notified by Spousal Equivalent at the beginning of our idyll that my smoking was a deal breaker.

But I digress…

In a little town with an official population of around 2,500, there are a number of young people hooked on heroin. And some of them sell it to offset their own addiction. These are kids. They are not hardened criminals intent on robbing the youths of those around them. The reasons for their addictions are unique, but the fallout is similar. They developed a medical condition that can necessitate them to undertake criminal activities.

The reason this is continuing in a town of 2,500, according to a source within the RCMP, is that there is a conspiracy of silence that is protecting these kids. It makes sense. No one wants to be known as the fink. No one wants to put someone else’s kid in jail. No kid wants to be ostracized – or worse – for being a "suck".

That is understandable. What is not understandable is why these predominantly dedicated middle-class families are not tapping into the resources known to them. God, since Betty Ford renounced her pill-popping ways in 1978 everyone who’s ever perused a People magazine at the doctor’s office knows about rehab. And it works. Maybe not the first time, or the second or even the third, but it has a better chance of allowing a person to give up an addiction than any other method we use.

Its success is infinitely better than criminalization.

Admitting the problem is the hardest part. No one wants to have an addict in his or her family. Maybe it’s time to take a page from ACT Up and start by talking about "people with addictions" and not "addicts." These are people’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Let’s not give these kids death sentences because of a treatable medical condition.

Talking equals life.

Simple.

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