Recent updates to Hamilton’s harm reduction framework
Two motions were recently passed in Hamilton City Hall that address the ongoing drug crisis and lack of safer-use spaces in the community
On Feb. 13, 2023, two motions regarding harm reduction were moved at Hamilton City Hall by Ward 13 councillor Alex Wilson and seconded by Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann.
The first motion called to allocate funding towards a substance abuse and addictions program and the second called for the development of an evidence-based harm reduction plan for safer use spaces in Hamilton. Both motions were passed with a unanimous vote.
Alongside the recent opioid crisis in 2020, Hamilton has seen a significant rise in opioid-related death this year, spiking conversation surrounding the potential of a drug poisoning crisis.
Kim Ritchie is a social worker with lived experience of opioid usage in Hamilton, and extensive knowledge and experience advocating for the implementation of harm reduction practices.
In an interview with the Silhouette, Ritchie explained that the climbing number of opioid-related deaths is alarming and abnormal, with Hamilton seeing 814 incidents related to opioid overdoses in 2022. For this reason, Ritchie explained that it is urgent that Hamilton address drug-poisoning and opioid related emergencies now.
“The body count is ever rising because half our clients out there and half the workers out there have complex grief and trauma for navigating direct medical crises that they're ill-prepared for or from constantly saving each other,” said Ritchie.
In a separate interview with the Silhouette, Wilson explained that the harm reduction motions aim to respond to this significant rise in opioid cases and opioid related deaths in Hamilton. Wilson explained that current challenges within the city such as high rent costs and soaring food prices may contribute to high rates of opioid usage.
The plan to advance a whole-community harm reduction framework entails consulting experts in health and drug policy while also convening with individuals with lived or living experience with addiction and opioid usage.
“We need a new approach, and we need an approach that's based in evidence and based in saving lives, informed by those with lived and living experience,” said Wilson.
Consulting individuals with lived and living experience is an important principle also shared by the Student Overdose Prevention and Education Network, a prevalent student organization works towards overdose prevention and harm reduction awareness.
SOPEN co-founder Olivia Mancini explained that the harm reduction and prevention work they do is rooted in listening to and uplifting individuals with lived experience with drug use to foster a stigma-free environment for learning safer-use practices and discussing the drug poisoning crisis.
Mancini, who has worked alongside Ritchie to enact harm reduction awareness and practices within Hamilton, explained that many of SOPEN’s initiatives aim to educate and de-stigmatize harm reduction and drug education among youth, such as community engagement initiatives at Hamilton’s Art Crawl. However, the mission to normalize and educate about harm reduction is not always widely accepted.
“Yeah, our focus is youth. We would like to have [harm reduction] education included in high school curriculum. It’s proven to be difficult to just do, much how sex education is controversial, it’s been hard to get into high schools,” said Mancini.
Alongside SOPEN, Wilson explained how organizations such as the YWCA are already demonstrating the feasibility of effective harm reduction plans. The YWCA has been operating a safer use space that has seen over 200 unique guests and have successfully reversed 34 drug poisonings.
Wilson explained that while community organizations are able to provide successful safer-use spaces, outside of these spaces individuals continue to overdose and lose their lives while faced with hospital delays and lack of available ambulances on the roads.
These motions are just the beginning of a longer process of acknowledging and acting upon prevalent drug-related emergencies in Hamilton. Mancini explained that with policy in place for safer-use spaces and broader-spanning harm reduction services, a tremendous weight will be taken off many frontline workers.
“If we have those funded services, it will also create cost savings to the community. It would relieve that pressure off of frontline workers, police, paramedics, the emergency department if people had access to harm reduction services,” said Mancini.
Ritchie shared the same sentiment, explaining the complex grief and trauma that accompanies frontline workers, shelter workers and opioid users from navigating an influx of medical crises.
Ritchie explained that implementing harm reduction policy and work surrounding safer-use and de-stigmatization will ripple into other areas of intersectionality.
“I don't want to look one more worker in the eye and watch them sob because they just saved somebody's life, I don't want to talk to another client who just buried another friend in a poppers grave, I don't want to stand in one more meeting having to yell for the rights of people who use drugs who are somehow villainized as though it's their fault, instead of acknowledging intergenerational trauma, structural racism,” said Ritchie.
Following this motion, Hamilton residents should expect a follow-up report detailing an updated opioid response plan and recommendations to be presented at the next Board of Health meeting in June 2023.
Ritchie explained that this work is a step in the right direction, and she has hope for positive outcomes from effective and informed harm reduction.
“And that's why I love harm reduction, it demands that we hang up our capes and we sit down in humility with other people's pain, and we start asking what they need instead of pushing change. There's no gaslighting in it. There's no heroism. It's humility and empowerment and education and understanding, and I really do feel that this is a foundation for momentum moving forward,” said Ritchie.
More information on City of Hamilton harm reduction policy plans can be found in the recent Board of Health reports.