Local advocate talks dispelling drug stigma

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition aims to change the narrative and support patients

This is a photo of an alley on the Downtown East Side in Vancouver. The alley is covered in graffiti. The art reads, “Test your shit,” and “Naloxone.”
PHOTO: Ted McGrath / Flickr

By: Olivia Sherman, News Writer

For Nicole Luongo, substances like alcohol and heroin are only separated by the thin line of what society deems moral or legal. Luongo is a systems change coordinator for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC), which aims to reduce the stigma faced by people who use drugs. 

Luongo, who has an MA in sociology from the University of British Columbia, focuses on “medical sociology,” or “the medicalization of deviant behaviours.” She explained in an interview with The Peak how “behaviours that are seen as anomalous” are often “made medical through policy and law,” and how those restrictions act as “a form of social control. 

“Our dominant understanding of [people actively using illegal drugs] is that they’re either criminals or sick people, or some combination thereof,” Luongo said. This is a misunderstanding she and the CDPC have been working to change through “public education and coalition building.” 

Luongo challenges our concepts of morality surrounding drug use by comparing it to regularly exercised habits.  “Looking back 100 years when alcohol was illegal, people would go blind from drinking gin made in bathtubs. And once we legalized alcohol, we were able to manufacture it in a way that had quality controls throughout the supply chain.” 

She argues alcohol prohibition is no different than drug prohibition, and both can be solved by proper manufacturing, regulation, and fear reduction. “I tend to ask people, ‘What is the difference between something like heroin or crack, and alcohol?’ and often the response is ‘Well, one’s legal, one’s not,’” Luongo said. “Often people kind of come to the realization that what the danger and risk they attributed to the drug itself is often actually embedded in the drug policy environment.” 

Luongo’s efforts with the CDPC aim to dispel the narratives surrounding drug use. She said certain drugs, such as cocaine, meth, and heroin, have been criminalized for so long, people “just accept that these drugs are inherently dangerous.” It’s this misunderstanding that leads to an “enormous amount of resistance to changing legislative and regulatory frameworks that would actually make drug use much safer.”

Luongo said the best efforts to aid with drug use and addiction often fall flat. Some anti-stigma campaigns focus on “framing [people who use drugs] as sick people in need of help,” Luongo said. She said labelling people “as having a chronic brain disease that they have no control over is actually very stigmatizing.” 

Another ongoing campaign is safe supply, a harm-reduction strategy that seeks to replace the street market drugs with prescribed drugs from a doctor. “So rather than [acquiring] opioids from the illegal street-based market, they might be able to go to a prescriber and get a prescription for opioids,” Luongo explained. “Although that is a win, the implementation of it has been very fractured, very incremental, and very inadequate.” 

Luongo explained how the safe supply campaign has long been steeped in misconceptions, and has trouble with accessibility and logistics. While BC does have safe supply in place, it’s limited to urban environments, and many provinces across Canada do not have safe supply at all. “Well over 100,000 people in the province who have been diagnosed with opioid use disorder [ . . . ] less than 5,000 actually have a prescription. So it’s very difficult to access if you’re outside of an urban area.

“In this realm, there’s very rarely things that are unequivocal wins. They usually always come with caveats. You have to be a bit of an incrementalist, unfortunately, which is not what I would prefer, but it’s just kind of how it is.” 

Luongo said governmental policies haven’t been effective at quelling misconceptions of drug use or lowering consequences stemming from drug use. Politicians haven’t done “any real favours because they are kind of over-selling what is actually available.” She noted certain areas, like the Downtown Eastside, have been “managed through policy and law to create this space of concentrated suffering.” 

While conservative groups lean toward “erroneous solutions” such as criminalizing and stigmatizing people more, Luongo explained more left-of-center groups tend to reassign blame to the conservatives. Luongo admitted she is “in this very uncomfortable position of needing to critique the current governments, but not critique them in a way that [her] criticisms will then be picked up by right-wing parties.” 

Luongo herself has a history with drug use, mental health struggles, and houselessness. This “lived experience at the intersections of illegal drug use” fuels her advocacy for people who use drugs. Given this history, Luongo describes how facing “politicians and bureaucrats” and members of the public who are “resistant to changes” can be painful. 

“It’s difficult and hurtful because I know how my life has been shaped by drug prohibition and negatively shaped. And so I am very personally invested in this work, and it means a great deal to me, and I see myself in every [person] who is stigmatized.”