Can you tell us about who you are and what Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) is trying to do?
My name is Leslie McBain and I’m the co-founder of MSTH. I’m also the Family Engagement Lead for the BC Center on Substance Use, which is primarily a research organization, but which also puts great importance on families of those people living with substance use disorder (SUD).
I lost my only child, Jordan, in 2014 to a prescription drug overdose. After I was able to lift my head again I fortuitously connected with two other moms who had similarly lost their sons. We founded Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH).
The original concept of MSTH is advocacy; we are focused on supporting and saving the lives of people who use drugs through evidence based, compassionate policy change. Our motivation is that we don’t want other families to go through what we have gone through.
What sets your organization apart from other advocacy groups that deal with the opioid crisis?
What sets us apart and why we have grown so fast (we have almost 1000 members at this point across Canada, though mostly in BC, Alberta and Ontario) is that we are inclusive and very supportive of our members. Our advocacy is all evidence based, very straightforward and respectful. We are also geared towards all levels of government, and we have a persona that is about moms and how mothers can change the world. What sets us apart is our respect, our compassion, and our adherence to evidence based possibilities of mitigating the crisis.
Can you explain what MSTH view are on harm reduction?
Harm reduction means many different things to different people. We strongly believe in all pathways of harm reduction, and that can mean safe supply, safe consumption sites, overdose prevention sites, and decriminalization of people who use drugs. Although we don’t advocate for it, the 12 step abstinence based programs can be categorized as harm reduction and work for many. All of these pathways reduce the harm to those who are addicted. However, we actually think that harm reduction is sort of a band-aid on the gaping wound of the overdose crisis, and that the real harm reduction is providing a safe supply of drugs to the people who need them. If we have a safe supply for those who are dependent, coming from a regulated source, people wouldn’t be dying of overdose and poisoning from toxic drugs.
There are several ideas floating around in this respect. One, where I work with the BC Center on Substance Use (BCCSU), is what we are calling ‘Compassion Clubs’ or ‘Buyers Clubs’. Those are organizations that have existed for a long time, at first with cannabis and then it was also with antiretroviral drugs for people with HIV. Now the concept is rolling around to groups of people organizing to purchase opioids and distribute them within their organization. The federal government has Exemption 56, which has to do with public safety and could potentially give organizations the ability to legally purchase safe diacetylmorphine or heroin for their own use. The Compassion Club idea is just one way that this could be done. Another way is if the federal government worked in cooperation with the provinces. They could sanction the implementation of different opioids to be able to prescribed by doctors to the people who need them.
There are a lot of ways this could happen. It wouldn’t be that difficult, and people would then be rightly seen as having a health issue that needs to be dealt with in a legal and safe way. It reduces stigma. I’m just writing a paragraph that I have to present on a phone call with the Ministry of Health (Health Canada) around stigma, and that’s really what precludes the government from moving ahead with harm reduction and evidence based policies. Bonny Henry, our Chief Medical officer for British Columbia, rolled out a report called “Stopping the Harm” that was based around the decriminalization of people using drugs and we got 0 response from the province except for Minister of Public Safety Farnsworth. He came out and said ‘absolutely not, we are not going to decriminalize drug users, it’s not going to happen.’ So it’s not even a discussion, and that was quite demoralising.
With safe supply we could potentially run into the same issue unless the all government agencies recognize and support decriminalization.
Are safe injections sites getting pushback from the community?
We have safe injection sites here in BC, but there seems to be more pushback in Alberta and Ontario. There’s always a problem in communities because nobody wants it near their neighborhood, or mayors and people at the local level are often not sympathetic to people who use drugs. They think safe injection sites are enabling and encouraging people to use drugs, which is patently untrue. All across Canada we are having this issue and every province is struggling with where, how, and if having safe consumption sites is what they want to do. This is really sad because that’s really the front line in harm reduction.
Do you find the pushback is coming more from the community end or the political end?
It’s both. Certainly just because people are politicians, or in legislatures, in public office doesn’t preclude them from carrying stigma against people who use drugs. We have a long history of carrying a moral perspective on people who use drugs that they’re lazy or bad people or make bad choices,and that myth persists.
People who use drugs are often do so as a way to mitigate pain. That pain can be from early childhood trauma, it can be mental health, poverty, racism, which can then lead to homelessness and other problems. There is a contingent of people who are just trying to feel better within those constraints, who are taking drugs.
The public’s view of people who use drugs is from what they see on the street, the homeless and people who use drugs in public because they have nowhere else to go .Also the media is at fault for continuing t use stigma The stigma arises from way back when the “War on Drugs” began and has persisted to this day. We also have the problem of social injustices towards folks who are in the marginalized sector who use drugs.
Stigma comes from the ground up, everyone has it, I have it, you have it, we all have it somewhere in us. It is a primitive response to fear. I think leadership in all levels should be responsible to send out public messaging in a fulsome way so that Canadians can learn about what drugs addiction is, how it manifests, and how to help those who suffer from SUD.
If you could implement one policy that you feel would have the biggest impact on the Opioid Epidemic what would you choose?
Implementing a safe, regulated, and legal supply of drugs to people who are addicted. That would be the first thing I would do if I had the authority. The other one that’s just as important is decriminalizing people who are arrested for possessing illicit drugs for their own personal use. Throwing people in jail for a health issue in unconscionable. There’s nothing much more stigmatizing than being arrested and going to jail for walking around with fentanyl or heroin, in essence, a medication that a person needs.. It’s a human rights violation. Decriminalization and safe supply are the big two. All across Canada we need more doctors who are versed in and trained in addiction medicine. We need more regulated treatment centers and mental health care.
Safe supply is at least going to stop people from dying and that is really what we want to do, stop the needless deaths.
How do you feel the medical community has been acting in regards to the opioid problem? Are they receptive to the harm reduction approach?
BC is the most progressive of the provinces around the opioid epidemic and other drugs as well, so we have more doctors that are being trained in addiction medicine and more interested in that field. It’s not a specialty, but we’re trying to get primary physicians to take that training, and I would love to see it become mandatory. In most provinces medical students only receive a very small window of education around addictions medicine. It is changing though. BCCSU offers a free online course in addiction medicine for doctors, and hundreds of doctors have taken that course. It would be awesome to see that rolled out across the country.
There are still a lot of old school physicians out there who continue to prescribe opioids for pain that could be mitigated by a lesser drug like Tylenol, Ibuprofen, or other ways. There’s still a lot of over-prescribing and ignorance around addiction. In my own case my son became addicted to Oxycodone after our family doctor prescribed massive amounts of it to him for seven months for what was a fairly minor back injury. When my son went to the doctor and told him he was addicted to the Oxy, the doctor was incredibly rude. I was in the room, and he proceeded to accuse Jordan of lying because he was an addict and basically fired him as a patient. That’s pretty extreme and I don’t think most doctors would take that position, but that is one extreme end of the spectrum.
What role have the pharmaceutical companies played in the Opioid Epidemic?
I absolutely think they should be held accountable. It’s criminal the way they marketed Oxycontin. They marketed it as a drug which is a very effective pain killer, which it is, but was also non-addictive. It’s mystifying to me how any physician could’ve bought the line that ‘here’s an opioid that’s not addictive’. It’s inherent in the drug. They absolutely should be held accountable, and I would wish that any lawsuits that are won, or judgements paid out, should go directly into treatment and recovery/support programs.
Has your group noticed a difference between the Trudeau Liberal government compared to the previous Harper Conservative government with regards to the Opioid Epidemic or drug policies?
I see a difference in rhetoric. The Harper government was very much opposed to even looking at the evidence around drug use and certainly against safe consumption sites and other harm reduction methods. It was a closed door. The Liberal’s Jane Phillpot was the best Minister of Health around this issue and I wish she was back in that position. She got it, she understood it.
The Liberals are much more progressive and much farther ahead and this scares the heck out of me for the next election because if the conservatives win we’re going to go backwards, and fighting the same battles again and again.
What’s happening now is that the federal government is ignoring the problem, even though they are consulting with BCCSU and MSTH, We’re really glad there’s an opening there, but there hasn’t been much substantive change. They rolled out bits of money here and there and that’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. They’re not treating the crisis as a crisis. More than 14,000 people have died in this country from drug harms since 2014.
If that’s not a crisis I don’t know what is. Even the Liberals are not attending to it in a fulsome way or we’d have more funding and more focussed support for things like safe injection sites. We’re not happy with the Liberal government, but we’re really scared of the Conservative government.
If you had to map out some root causes of the Opioid Epidemic what would those be?
The cause is the War on Drugs and that was the government in the US and Canada prohibiting substances that have been around for a long time (including alcohol during prohibition). Prohibition in Canada was a racialized movement against Chinese people. It did not work then and it obviously isn’t working with drugs now. Because there’s prohibition and people still want drugs to feel better, and there isn’t a safe regulated market, the black market has become so incredibly lucrative that it’s affecting things like the housing market in BC (with regards to money laundering). There’s so much money being made on fentanyl that the drug thugs are raking it in. That black market isn’t going to end until people don’t need to use it.
The overdose crisis is a function of the black market and the black market is function of prohibition.
At the provincial level in BC, has there been a change with the NDP/Green coalition compared to the previous Liberal Ministry?
Yes. We do have the new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, led by Judy Darcy, so there’s a lot of talk and consultation and committee work happening. There is an overdose emergency response center (OERC) formed as well.
This government is doing a better job than the Christy Clark Liberal government. She was interested in the issues, and they did some talking, but I think at the end of the day, it was just not politically expedient for them to get involved. However, the Ministry of Health in BC is not, in my opinion, attending to the opioid crisis as it should be. The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions funding comes from the Ministry of Health and while she is a really good person and gets it, her ministry isn’t able to move forward as it could and should because it doesn’t get the funding and approval from the Ministry of Health. That’s where I see we need to put our energy, convincing Adrienne Dix that we need to attend to this new ministry with increased funding and protections for safe injection sites and recovery centers.
Are there any politicians that you see as really taking it on opiods as a cause?
Don Davies of the federal NDP, he really gets it. He’s met with us and understands.
Another is Jagmeet Singh, I’ve met with him personally and heard his compassionate take on the opioid epidemic. His platform is very compassionate.
Another one who gets it is Green Party leader Elizabeth May. She’s a personal friend and we talk about this often. Those are the three I can think of who I trust to take the right message to government and to the people of Canada.
If someone notices a family member is beginning to develop an addiction what would you recommend they do?
Let’s say it’s a kid and the parents are seeing a teenager begin to use a lot of pot, or drinking, or use drugs. Experimenting with drugs is normal. Kids are going to experiment with all kinds of things like sex, drugs, risky behaviours. It’s part of what kids do. But now it’s become deadly to engage in drug experimentation. Parents need to know the facts about fentanyl and how deadly it can be to the naive or recreational user. Parents need to be vigilant, watch their kids’ behavior, and when they see a change they have to open a calm dialogue. They need to leave anger, judgement, and shaming/blaming at the door and go in with an open and supportive and loving start to an ongoing and factual dialogue.
It’s not easy because as parents we are fearful and we often go in angry and start saying tings like ‘You did this and you’re hanging out with bad people, and you need to stop!’ and that just doesn’t work. Families really need to approach their family members with love and support and compassion and it’s not easy. It’s really really hard. Don’t think that by talking alone you’re going to do this. If your kid is addicted, you’re going to need to confront some bad behaviours, hateful language, kids may often steal from the people they love because it’s the safest.
There’s a range of behaviors that go along with drug use. Dialogue and offering of support is best. What I used to do with my son was print out articles about drug use and leave them on his bed, lots of information. I didn’t know nearly enough about drug use. Support with lack of judgement is the best way to go in.
There are resources in many cities for parents wondering what to do and how to speak to their kids. The BCCSU partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association, and the BC Bereavement Helpline, on an updated an existing document called “From Grief to Action: A Coping Kit" It’s a free PDF online and you can also get the hard copy for free through the BCCSU..
We have another one that I was personally involved with called “Gone Too Soon”. It’s a resource for families that have lost someone to drugs. I always say it’s the book I wish I had when my son died, because it’s not something you can ever be prepared for.
The federal government is in the process of printing it in French and English to send out to different health authorities across Canada.
What’s the biggest positive impact MSTH has had so far?
There’s not one single thing I can point to that has significantly changed, but there is a growing army of people working on better drug policies, and we’re just one faction of that army. Our biggest success is in continually putting pressure on legislators, at all levels, and having them listen to us. We use our stories as our strength and when we tell the individual stories of our losses politicians start listening to us. Health Canada consults with us and asks for advice on certain campaigns and have allowed us a seat at the table when forming the “Good Samaritan Law” for instance, and the “Anti-stigma Campaign”.
What has changed directly from us is hard to say, but our biggest success, which wasn’t our intention when we started MSTH, is that we have formed a support network for our members, for those who are in deep grief or are struggling with a loved one in addiction.
On social media we have closed confidential pages where people can share their stories and successes and cry when it’s the birthday or the deathday of their son, their daughter, their loved one. Support for people who are struggling with this has been huge and unexpected. We have just started peer support groups called “Healing Hearts” for people who have lost someone and “Holding Hope” for those who have a loved one still struggling. These are under our umbrella and are spreading slowly across the country to provide people with the support they need so they know they’re not alone.
Is MSTH a registered non-profit or a charitable organization?
We’re a registered non-profit. We decided not to go the charitable route because there are certain parameters to being a charity (such as not criticizing government policy). We decided to stick with non-profit because we do protest and criticize government policy. That’s our job.
Have you ever connected with anyone like Dr. Gabor Mate?
We invited him to come to Kelowna last year, and we, two of the Moms, were asked if we would pick him up from the airport and drive him around. So we did. In doing so he became aware of MSTH and his comment was something like “I understand you’re from Moms Stop the Harm. I can’t understand why you’re picking me up...I thought all mothers hated me!” We laughed and said, ‘Well, we used to.’ We had a good amount of time to ask our questios. He was very generous.In his first writings he used to blame mothers for their children’s addictions, but he’s changed and evolved and talks more about trauma that can be epigenetic, or even in utero trauma. So he’s really softened up on moms. Many of our members have spoken to him personally. He’s a wonderful guy who’s doing an amazing job spreading understanding of people who use drugs, and we believe his philosophy identifies a big part of the problem.
Another one is Bruce Alexander who is the creator of the famous ‘Rat Park Experiment’ who’s a great friend and mentor. His philosophy around connections really meld with Gabor Mate’s focus on community and connection and the bigger issue of why people become addicted to soften the pain of life, and why this huge amount of pain exists.
Johan Hari is another one who’s aware of Moms Stop the Harm; we have connected with him on Twitter, he follows us and we follow him.
Gabor and Bruce and Johan get it. It’s around connection and compassion and support for our fellow human beings. This is the only way we’re going to solve the crisis of the harms of addiction and overdose.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
My plea to those who are reading this is, if you have questions about why we have certain views such as why we want to support the lives of drug users, and why we must reduce stigma, please address them to us through our website or Facebook page. People really need to check their stigma and educate themselves about the problem and possible solutions. This is the biggest impediment to reducing harm.
To have sigma is a natural human defense mechanism to fear, so if people could just really think it through, educate themselves, instead of just worrying about their tax dollars, they would lose the fear and we can end this madness.
Leslie McBain lost her only child, her 25 year old son Jordan, to a prescription drug overdose in 2014. She subsequently co-founded the advocacy and suppport group, Moms Stop the Harm in 2015, now national in scope with close to one thousand members. Leslie works with the B.C. Center on Substance Use in Vancouver as Family Engagement Lead. Leslie firmly believes that ending the failed war on drugs is critical to saving the lives of people who use drugs.