The war against feeling alright – it’s time to decriminalise pleasure

In one of our final sessions of the INHSU 2021 conference, we had the honour and privilege to welcome Garth Mullins – drug user, academic, and CRACKDOWN podcast creator – who joined us to host a discussion around the ‘War against feeling alright’.

There is an enormous amount of stigma and discrimination towards people who use drugs, and this session aimed to unpack that, and why people who use drugs are treated so differently from people who use other stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol or tobacco. 

Speakers from across the globe shared their journeys into drugs, their own experiences of using drugs, and how attitudes towards the euphoria drugs can provide needs to change. Each story is based on everyone’s real life, and reader discretion is advised. Content in the full video recording ranges from graphic sexual content, near death experiences, and more.

CRACKDOWN Podcast is a monthly podcast about every single aspect of being someone who uses drugs and lives in Canada’s downtown eastside. As well as CRACKDOWN host and executive producer Garth Mullins, we were joined by Matthew Bonn; Program Manager with Canada’s Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD); Judy Chang; Executive Director at the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD): Sione Crawford the Chief Executing Officer (CEO) at Harm Reduction Victoria, and Angela McBride, Director at the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs (SANPUD).  

“I’m basically an old school dope fiend,” Garth explained. “I used opioids for most of my adult life. It has been a defining part of my life but I never really talked about it until the last few years as I was very ashamed of it.” 

Like many, Garth believed it was a terrible thing he was doing, and he had to hide it from the world. But that eventually changed. 

“As I got more involved with drug user activists here in Vancouver, I started to realize that drugs played an important role for me, as they do for a lot of people,” he said. “I was a pretty suicidal kid, and I used heroin to keep myself alive. And that’s how it worked. And once I started to realize this, I was a little more forgiving of myself.”  

Shutting The Ghosts Out 

Garth went on to paint a vivid picture of what opiates can do for him, and others he has spoken to through the podcast. “There are all these terrible ghosts that are all around you,” he continued. “And you’ve managed – with the use of heroin (or other drugs) – to shut them in a little box.” 

It is this sentiment that is at the very heart of the war against feeling alright. Yet, there is a broad inability to accept that people need euphoria, and that they may want the feeling that drugs can provide. As Garth says – drugs feel good. Yet in order to feel good, people who use drugs face many challenges, which remain the centre point of much activism to this day.  

“Issue number one is that no one knows what’s in the drug supply,” explained Garth. “We have lost thousands and thousands of people to the overdose crisis because of this.” 

But the issues don’t stop there. Because drugs are illegal there is the constant threat of criminalization, and the illicit supply means people can literally bankrupt themselves, destined to a life of poverty and struggling to make ends meet. 

 “Then there’s societal ostracization,” Garth concluded. “All because you simply want to feel alright. To get that same feeling that people get at the end of the day when they go for a beer in the pub.”  

Euphoria as part of treatment 

Garth, the other speakers, and Reija – the interviewee in the podcast clips played during the session – spoke about the need for euphoria to be included in addiction treatment and management, or at least factored in by medical professionals. 

“You can’t just deprive someone of their coping mechanism and expect it to work,” Reija explained. “And if you do that, you have to be honest and tell someone that the drugs being prescribed are for people who will be perfectly abstinent.” 

And of course, being perfectly abstinent isn’t always easy, or desired. For Reija, this eventually meant swapping from Suboxone (which dulls the receptors, inhibiting your ability to get high) to Methadone, which enables her to find balance and still experience that feeling of euphoria when she wants to.  

That balance enables her to function – to get up in the morning, to do the simple things, to make toast, to create her art. A similar story was shared by other speakers throughout the session.  

A conscious decision to use

We were then joined by Sione Crawford from Harm Reduction Victoria who shared his journey. His story denies the cliched narrative that people who use drugs aren’t making conscious decisions (as Garth said, ‘we’re not these out-of-control zombies). For Sione, it was very much a rational choice. 

 “As a very young man in New Zealand I used heroin for a number of years but then stopped using,” he said. “After moving to Australia and going through a whole chain of events, including a relationship break up, I decided – quite logically in my mind – to start using again.” 

For Sione, it gave him a space to relax away from the world and to create a space that was entirely his. “I knew exactly how opioids would make me feel and what they would bring,” he explained. “If you haven’t experienced that euphoria before it may be hard to understand.” 

Sione also discussed how, as someone who uses drugs, you are often channeled into making decisions that you really have no control over – what you buy, where you use, etc, because of the structures that are in place to control euphoria. “There are very constrained structures in which you are trying to make choices” he explained – factors that put limits on your autonomy and your freedoms.  

Sione is now on Methadone, after deciding not to stick with the originally prescribed Buprenorphine. But again, the journey was hindered by the world’s need to quash the feeling that drugs can bring. “I essentially felt like I had to lie about my reasons,” Sione said. “And I couldn’t say, well, it’s because I want to use sometimes. I still want that sense of agency.”  

Drugs Give You Time to Respond 

For Angela McBride, Director at the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs, drugs can play an important role when it comes to processing things, particularly traumatic experiences.  

“When I was younger, I used drugs in a way that was harmful to me,” explained Angela. “But when I started working in the field of harm reduction, I started to learn how to use drugs in a less harmful way, in a way that was safe and constructive for me.” 

Angela went on to describe an experience recently where she used drugs to process the death of her father. It was planned carefully across a course of 18 months; people knew what she was doing (even her mum, showing how open and trusting relationships around drugs can be), she set her intentions, chose music etc, and used prescription stimulants.   

“I went through a period of abstinence following the 12 step model,” Angela said. “But I found that there was a lot of perpetuation of guilt and shame. It’s come up a few times where I try to fit into this box, or get told what that box is, instead of creating the space that works for me.”  

Risk-Taking And Camaraderie 

Judy Chang, Executive Director at the International Network of People Who Use Drugs spoke frankly about some of the reasons people use drugs.  

“There’s just so many reasons why we use drugs and it’s just so easy for society to pigeonhole it and treat it as a deficit,” Judy said. “Sometimes it’s a lot about managing or regulating emotions, getting through traumatic experiences, or processing. But of course, it’s also about pleasure.” 

An interesting insight from Judy was that taking drugs is also about risk-taking, which in itself is really pleasurable, with people seeking risk every day – not just through drug use. “There are many different activities throughout society, which is all about the merging of risk-taking and pleasure,” explained Judy.  

She went on to discuss her own journey into the drug user activism movement, and the sense of camaraderie that has brought her support over the past 25 years since she first used drugs. 

“There is always this lingering self-stigma and the shame about how the public perceives you,” she said. “The drug user activist community is a sign of resilience. And still being proud about that and being open and public. And you know, sharing your stories. I think there’s real power in that.”  

Being honest about who you are

Matt Bonn, Program Coordinator at the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs & Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, talked about how he has used drugs for the past 20 years, with some periods of abstinence.  

“I had that feeling that I had to be off drugs for a lot of my life,” explained Matt. “So now, I just accept that I use drugs. I like who I am when I’m honest about myself. But you know, I still get a lot of backlash from it from my family, from my community, who can’t accept it.”  

 “Nowadays, I can smoke weed with my mum,” explained Matt. “But she’s still one that will not accept me for my fentanyl use or my benzo use. And it’s hard because she’s one of the only like, real supports in my life. I hear everyone talking about having to lie to the doctor. I have to lie to her a lot of times and kills me to do that.” 

Garth and Matt had an open conversation around the different attitudes from family when it comes to prescriptions drugs like Methadone, versus illegal substances that come with the constant threat of overdose.  

 “A lack of safe supply means that we could die, but it also criminalizes it,” concluded Garth. “It creates more challenges in our relationships with people. I think about all the things that would change because of safe supply, or all the things that are damaged because of prohibition. And now I add to that huge, long list the relationship between Matt and his mom.” 

We would like to thank everyone who took part in this session for sharing their stories and being so open, honest, and frank about their journey with drugs and what drugs mean to them. Community members get free membership to INHSU and we are always hoping to welcome more people with lived experience to our network. Find out more here.

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