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By Joseph Lee, SMA (CIRP)

On January 31st, 2023, the British Columbian government, in conjunction with Health Canada, instated a temporary exemption of personal possession of illegal substances, decriminalizing a maximum of 2.5 grams cumulative total of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA for adults. The change, which is active until January 31st, 2026, is part of a larger collective movement to destigmatize and actively offer mental health resources around the ongoing overdose epidemic.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs,” says BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside, “breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer about reaching out for lifesaving supports.” This is especially important when discussing substance use and those affected by trauma, as the stress caused by trauma can make it challenging to reach out and ultimately maintain recovery.

It is essential to remember that those who struggle with substance use do not struggle by choice, although it’s typically believed this is the case. Substance use is usually caused by two major factors: an individual may start using because of physical pain caused by work or an accident, or they may start using due to trauma that the person has experienced in some point during their life, usually early childhood.

Regarding the second point, Hungarian-Canadian physician Gabor Maté believes that trauma itself has two underlying branches, known as attachment concerns and authenticity concerns. Attachment concerns regard the individual’s feelings of isolation and alienation, which is often developed from impacts of childhood trauma. Due to human’s innate need for social interaction, and the lack of this interaction (caused by childhood trauma) the endorphin system becomes underdeveloped. Substance use becomes more likely in an individual as the substances may provide the stress-reducing effects of the endorphins that the individual is missing. This is also why criminalizing substances further ingrains those feelings of isolation- if caregivers, family, and friends – and by extension, society – isolate these individuals by the criminalization of substances, this may amplify the impacts of addiction.

The second branch of trauma concerns authenticity – the feeling that intellect and an inherent “gut feeling” are disconnected. When an individual is unable to feel or act authentically to themselves, they may become disconnected from life and feel like they are unable to live to their true potential. In the case of childhood trauma, for example, this may be caused by a child ignoring their inherent, authentic desire to eat a cookie before dinner, but suppressing these feelings because their parents may potentially get traumatically angered. These experiences can lead to severe detachment from oneself and intellect – where substances typically arise as coping mechanisms or links to “help feel this authenticity.”

This is where it is thought that addiction arises – because of seriously damaged emotional and biological processes that may be caused by childhood or generalized traumatic experiences. The short-term relief derived from substances may develop into long-term addiction, despite the negative consequences. This is due to the powerful calming effect one can experience whilst using substances, especially when this calmness has not been experienced before. After a certain point in time, an individual, despite knowing the negative consequences, may be unable to stop using as their body becomes dependent on the substance to function, and doing so can lead to life-threatening withdrawal on a biological level.

Therefore, we must shift the lens through which we understand those who struggle with addiction. Remember again that those who suffer typically do not by choice- rather, it is a coping strategy used to alleviate the pain associated with traumatic life experiences. We can argue that those who suffer are not criminalized because of this need, and the recent decriminalization in B.C. reflects this understanding- rather than framing these individuals as criminals, alienating them from society, and further blocking them from the necessary support resources they require, we can shift our perspective and understand that their addictions, trauma, and substance use are treatable within humanitarian means and paths of recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use issues or trauma, reach out to Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP). We are a substance use treatment program that has been in business for over 45 years, providing care to the construction industry for you and your family members. Call us at 604-521-8611. Our hours are Monday to Friday from 9 am to 6 pm. We’re here to help!