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The Shadow Side on the War on Drugs

The debate around legalizing marijuana has resurfaced with a variety of opinions.

The Health Officers Council of B.C. has called for regulation of illegal substances to reduce the harm from substance use and the unintended consequences of government policies. The Council noted, “Proven public health approaches should be used to constrain its use.”

Stop the Violence B.C., a group composed of criminologists and law enforcement and public health officials, has called for the end to the war on drugs. The group argues that prohibition has failed, with enforcement merely fueling the $7 billion illegal marijuana industry.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy called on Canada to stop pursuing the “destructive, expensive and ineffective” prohibition of pot. In reference to Bill C-10 (that proposes implementation of mandatory prison sentences for minor cannabis-related offences) and the building of more prisons, the Commission stated, “Canada is at the threshold of continuing to repeat the same grave mistakes as other countries.”

What is the answer? Author Dr. Gabor Maté suggests, “No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.” Addiction, specifically drug addiction, carries negative connotation – with ‘addicts’ often judged, blamed and harshly treated by society. What is the underlying darkness behind this shunning attitude?

All addictions share a common primary driving factor – self-soothing in order to escape psychological and emotional pain that has never been resolved. The suffering often exists due to a lack of childhood attachment with key caretakers. Abuse, trauma, neglect, living in dysfunctional households and the lack of consistent emotionally available parents lead to a neurological and psychological predisposition for addiction.

Maté states he had, “never met a single female patient down here [at the Vancouver Onsite detox centre] who was not sexually abused as a child.” Concerning men, he adds, “If they weren’t sexually abused they were physically abused, abandoned, neglected, serially abandoned, serially neglected.”

If the underlying key developmental factor of addiction is lack of securely attached relationships (from abuse, neglect, loss of parent, etc.), then would it not make sense to address addiction with reliable, sympathetic and supportive measures?

Policy makers, front line workers and all people need to take a trauma-informed perspective of addiction, and in fact, mental illness, homelessness and criminal offences. This means acknowledging trauma as the principal factor behind whatever other symptoms, coping mechanisms or issues people are dealing with.

Talking about abuse in a non-retraumatizing, non-labelling way lifts the shroud of secrecy and denial around interpersonal trauma. When we do not ask, we do harm. Early screening for trauma, assessment of the impact of trauma, and referral for integrated trauma services by trauma-informed staff need to become common practice.

Stopping the punishment of people for their addictions and honouring the practice of harm reduction are other ways in which trauma-informed principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice, empowerment, non-violence and democracy can be applied.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.