Drugs, safety, and moral panic

Standing amidst the crowd gathered in late July to protest proposals to build a Consumption and Treatment Services (CTS) site in Cambridge, I was drawn in by people’s faces. Parents’ squinting, looking for their children who ran around them. Faces that looked anxious and indignant. 

James Dover took responsibility for organizing the anti-CTS rally, which saw nearly a hundred attendees. Dover runs the social media for the newly formed Facebook group “No to CTS site.” Dover and two other founding members, Clifford Vanclief and Rick Heidenreich, all spoke at the event. 

“We’re against the consumption part of the consumption and treatment center…We don’t want people doing illegal substances,” Dover said.

Communities across North America have been grappling with the devastating rise of opioid-related overdose deaths and COVID-19 has aggravated overdose fatalities—in Waterloo Region, the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths doubled during the pandemic.

Michael Parkinson, drug strategy specialist with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council pointed out that the region has had close to 70 unprevented fatal drug poisonings this year. 

“For context, SARS took the lives of 44 people in the entire country, total. Motor vehicle collisions took the lives of 20 people, total, in Waterloo Region last year,” Parkinson wrote in an email. 

This public health crisis has devastated the region and is especially divisive in Cambridge. CTS sites offer a supervised location for people to use substances and access holistic supports. The two proposed locations for CTS sites in Cambridge are on 8 Oxford St., where the anti-CTS rally began, and 15 Easton St.

Fernado Medeiros, a Cambridge resident, brought his whole family to protest the proposed CTS sites. 

Medeiros said that he would prefer a rehabilitation site be built somewhere far from the community he grew up in. 

“City Hall is big enough for them to have a treatment place,” Medeiros said. “There’s a lot of different places too, instead of near where your kids are playing…We used to play roller hockey on the streets years ago, and now I feel afraid to even sit on the balcony.”

Like many at the rally, Mederios said they get information about what happens in Cambridge from social media. The groups often include pictures of tent cities and discarded needles. 

Dover said that “Clean Up Cambridge” was the original name for the rally, and it reflects how many feel about people who use drugs and who exist in the liminal spaces around Cambridge: as trash to clean up.

Vanclief told protesters at the rally that it wasn’t the homeless or even people who use substances who he was concerned about, but the supposed criminals who infiltrate those groups. 

“This neighborhood has been experiencing crime for far too long. We have all been targets of theft from our porches, sheds and our garages. We’ve had break and enters, and home invasions. We’ve witnessed drug deals, stolen property and coming and going from various drug houses, which makes us all uneasy and feeling unsafe,” he said.

Statistics Canada recently released a report that showed that in 2020, there were 5,142 opioid-related offences in Canada, a 34 per cent increase compared to 2019. Drug violations include possession, trafficking, production and importation or exportation offences. In Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, there were 30 crimes per 100,000 population. 

What is illegal and what is considered immoral changes over time. Not long ago, cannabis was considered a highly dangerous substance, stirring communities into a similar moral panic trying to protect themselves from the drug and the crime that came with it. 

After cannabis was legalized in October 2018, the rates of police-reported cannabis offences continued to drop. Now, a slate of cannabis-shops are opening across the region and the perception of danger and criminal activity associated with cannabis has shifted. Concurrently, the national police-reported rates of cannabis-related drug offences have been declining since 2012, with notable decreases from 2018 to 2020. 

Investigations into Canada’s failed war on drugs from in the early 1900s and onward show that severe laws and enforcement — which especially targeted Chinese and Black populations — did little to stop the flow of drugs and crime in communities. 

“Canada’s first narcotic law was passed in 1908, and firmly rooted not in evidence but in selective racism. 112 years of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results in 2021 is delusional,” Parksinon argued of the war on drugs through over-policing and crackdowns. “It’s a tremendous waste of public dollars and guaranteed to kill and injure thousands of people across Canada.”

Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council’s (Un)Safe report found that participants who consume unregulated drugs and lack stable housing had been incarcerated an average of 12 times each. 

“That’s millions of public dollars devoted to an intervention that survey participants neither desired nor experienced as a deterrent,” Parkinson wrote. “More effective interventions exist for both individual and community health and safety, but they are difficult to fund, or are subject to a level of political scrutiny we would never invoke for other important but less common forms of death and injury.”

Anti-CTS protestor holds sign that reads 'Ruin of Galt'
Photo by Fitsum Areguy

There is some evidence that safer supply, a long-term medical approach that involves giving people who use drugs access to a legal prescription and places like CTS sites where drug use can be supervised in a safe environment will lead to a decrease in crime. Despite the data and research that addresses many of the concerns raised at the anti-CTS rally, the issue remains contentious.

The system to support people who use substances has been bending under pressure for far too long. Local shelters that have been running over capacity for years see 12 to 24 overdoses every week and have limited resources. On top of this emotionally taxing and underpaid labour, outreach workers also use their time off to advocate for those who they support.

Samantha Porte, a social support worker with the Kitchener CTS, was a co-organizer of the pro-CTS rally. She worked with other direct service workers and community members to show support for the proposed CTS sites in Cambridge. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions about how CTS sites work,” Porte wrote in an email. “I think there are also a lot of misconceptions about people who use drugs in the first place. It’s important to do the work and acknowledge that what we learn or are exposed to is not always an accurate portrayal of what’s really going on.”

Porte wrote that the plans to protest against the proposed CTS sites in Cambridge made her stomach turn. She wrote that the hatred she sees in those groups weighs on her. 

Part of the reason there were only a handful of pro-CTS protesters this year was because many were not able to take the time off. 

“The local workforce, like their peers across Canada, are burnt out and traumatized by the steady stream of deaths,” Parkinson wrote. “Those workers are among our greatest assets if the community is really serious about reducing deaths and more. We are losing good people who can not be replaced.”

Heidi Morrison is not an outreach worker, but she attended the counter-rally anyway. She wanted to attend because she does not want her or anybody else’s child to suffer because of the opioid epidemic. She held a sign that read, “DEAR SON, DON’T USE ALONE. LOVE, MOM.”

“There’s a lot of power in [the word ‘Mom’]…,” Morrison tapped on the word ‘mom.’Everybody’s got one, everybody loves and respects their mom…There’s nobody, no human being alive that can’t relate to that,” Morrison said. “There’s moms worrying about their children dying and these people are trying to help and save them. How that’s a bad thing, I can’t comprehend it.”

Morrison had a point: family is something many relate to. There were children everywhere at the protest; I was shocked by how long it had been since I had been around so many families at a public event. Morrison enthusiastically showed me her baby in a stroller wearing a shirt that read SUPPORT, NOT STIGMA. 

Morrison knew it was important to not just show up for the counter-rally but also for the work that would need to be done everyday after it. 

“People are working their butts off to try to save other people’s children. They’re not being respected for it, they’re having to fight for the right to do that,” Morrison said.

Instead of understanding supervised consumption of substances as part of a medical approach, people adopt a moralistic stance that ignores structural issues and assumes there is something inherently wrong with people who use drugs. 

Jeremy Hughes is a resident in the area where the two rallies passed through. Still, he fell more strongly on the anti-CTS side.  

“If I’m going to use some serious drugs, I don’t need to go to a medical professional and have them watch,” Hughes opined. “If you are going to choose to do serious drugs that could kill you, I think you should have the right to die in your own home.”

Jude Oudshoorn, one of the pro-CTS protestors, told me that he recalled a moment when one individual walked by the anti-CTS rally with a shopping cart and a member of the anti-CTS rally yelled at him to get a job, completely missing the mark on pain and suffering.

“At what point does a child’s pain and trauma and abuse that they’ve experienced translate into us blaming them for their challenges as an adult?” Oudshoorn said.

Christina Resendes was attending the anti-CTS rally. She has been sober for 16 years and advocates for other solutions, such as increasing access to appropriate mental health care.

“Does it have to be a CTS site? Like why can’t we get proper therapy, or like some kind of rehabilitation?” Resendes said. “Because at the end of the day these are sick human beings. They’re sick and they need help….It’s just a matter of seeing things from other people’s perspectives, because when you open your eyes to that, then it kind of opens up more solutions. You can try to fight to make that change, but you gotta try to do it with love.” 

There may be more that binds protesters together than drives them apart. I saw people who care about the safety and wellbeing of their communities, but information flies in erratically to peoples’ periphery. Cambridge is changing fast. 

The speed of change can be disquieting and scary, and the easiest targets are those deemed undesirable. The misinformation spreading through Facebook groups will continue to amplify fear, keeping people looking over their shoulder or peering through their blinds. There will be no consensus on these CTS sites anytime soon, but Porte is holding out hope.

“We have enough fact-based, person-centred, and trauma-informed work experience to know that this will speak for itself, and the reason behind the support will shine through,” Porte wrote.


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