Harm Reduction Spotlight: Matt Bonn
Spectra Plasmonics had the opportunity to sit down with Matt Bonn, a program manager with the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs. He’s also an International Board member with International Network of Health and Hepatitis in Substance Users, and a knowledge translator for the Dr. Peters Centre. His freelance writing has appeared in publications including Filter-Mag, The Conversation, CATIE, Doctors Nova Scotia, Policy Options and The Coast. Matthew was also on the 64th Canadian Delegation to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He is a current drug user and a formerly incarcerated person.
How would you describe the Canadian Harm Reduction landscape right now?
Right now, in Canada we have approximately 20 people dying each day from an unregulated toxic drug supply and the method that harm reduction is rolled out is done in a very piecemeal way between the provinces. Luckily, in Nova Scotia, we do have some effective harm reduction measures such as overdose prevention sites, a needle and syringe program, we have various clinics that offer opioid agonist therapy. Those are all very effective initiatives, but when we look at drug policy as a whole, we still criminalize people, they're still a very volatile and unregulated market. So, people are forced to consume substances in ways that are very risky and unsafe. We really need to look at larger long-term policy shifts, such as decriminalization and regulation of all substances if we really want to address what's going on in Canada.
BC decriminalization is getting a lot of attention. What do you see as other areas of optimism?
I really believe that the decriminalization exemption in BC is a positive step towards ending the war on drugs. It provides this opportunity for other provinces to mimic a very similar kind of exemption, creating more of an opportunity to have like a unified decriminalization model. Although there are fundamental flaws with the exemption that was granted to BC. It only includes certain drugs but excludes a completely whole class such as benzodiazepine or xylazine, the animal tranquilizer that we're seeing a lot more in the unregulated drug market. It also will still criminalize youth who use drugs so there are there are fundamental issues with it, but I think overall it's a positive step forward. I think if we really want to address this head on, we need to not just decriminalize drugs, but we need to regulate drugs and provide people who are using a toxic evolved volatile substance with a with a safe, regulated substance that they know the quality and the quantity of drugs.
How do you see safe supply sitting alongside solutions like drug checking?
I think there's issues with medical safe supply as well, like a medical safe supply does not meet the needs of the unregulated drug market. It does improve one's quality life, and it reduces the amount of stress that people have, but I think drug checking should be available everywhere people are using drugs. I think you can do this in very, innovative ways with mobile drug checking services that I think the recreational drug scene has done very well at festivals and whatnot. But I think if we look at who's dying from overdoses and overdose deaths, and if they could have been saved by knowing what is in their substance, then that's something that we need to implement immediately. It makes sense to test substances, before they're distributed to the overall drug use community. So, if that's through partnering with drug sellers or community-based organizations, it just makes financial sense to do it instead of doing a bottom-up approach, do it from how people are distributing drugs and test those substances?
How has CAPUD’s mission evolved as harm reduction policy has become more progressive?
I think CAPUD has always had this very, very progressive outlook on drug use. We created the first safe supply concept document back in 2019. I think we've really seen a lot of progress made in professionals providing a medical safe supply and just the idea and the concept of it being accepted, but I think there's still a long way to go. We really believe that the government should have a say in how drugs should be dispensed and if they wanted to really address the toxic drug supply, then they could import and export their own substances that wouldn't have any types of cut in it. I think we definitely adapt to the local environment, but I think we've kind of been ahead of head of them in that aspect.
Where do you think we’re falling short for Canadians who use drugs right now?
I think a lot of the services that are available are only available to meet the needs of the organizations that run them, right. I think we need on demand, harm reduction services that are open 24 hours, and I don't think that really happens a lot. We need affordable housing for people, it may not be directly associated with drug use and drug culture. But this harms people experiences and it's hard to effectively support them with their drug use. I think that safe supplies is a huge one. So not having regulated access is a huge downfall of kind of the climate that we're in today. Some doctors have stepped up and dispense medical safe to safe supply, which is great, but it really shouldn't be in the hands of physicians. It should be in the hands of people who use drugs. I really think on demand, access to kind of the harm reduction services and drug treatment services that are available would be hugely enormous in supporting people who use drugs in Canada.
Does that best come from the federal government? Or is it an all-hands-on deck type initiative?
We have the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, which kind of regulates and criminalize drugs, but then it gets rolled out provincially and locally through law enforcement officers. I think the federal government should get rid of that and say, “here's the unified model, we're all going to decriminalize drugs.” I think there's a kind of a huge flaw in the system, because of stigma and discrimination associated with drug use. I think if you had a national approach that was rolled out, effectively in every province that would reduce a lot of the confusion and the harms associated with going from one province to the next. I think if you gave provinces financial resources to roll these with community-based organizations, you could eliminate a lot of the back and forth between a federal Liberal government and a provincial Conservative government.
It’s very powerful to see how a lot of these issues are rooted in criminalization.
A lot of times people are charged, it may be drugs that initially put them on the law enforcement radar, but then they get charged with all these additional crimes. Then they may not even get charged for the drug possession or whatever, right? That social exclusion of having a criminal record just eliminates your chances of kind of having this productive life. You're not allowed to travel, it's hard to get meaningful employment, and some housing complexes won't even let you in with a criminal record. So, this criminal approach to the war on drugs just hasn't worked and we need to look at a more effective and compassionate approach.
This interview reflects personal views and in no way that of an institution or organization.
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