Desperate reflections on the fentanyl and drug crisis in Canada
Shortly after arriving at my old stomping grounds in central Saskatchewan this late summer, I was confronted by terrible news: one of my best friends, whom I had known since high school, had died. The death was, as far as I can tell, the result of an overdose from fentanyl-contaminated drugs. From what I understand—the details are somewhat obscure—at the moment of his death, he was surrounded by, let us say, acquaintances who apparently were not thinking seriously of his well-being or personal safety. Perhaps they were not about to accept any legal risk perceived to be involved in calling an ambulance or 911 and for this reason decided to instead text one of his friends to pick him up. At that point, I am told, he was unresponsive. The sad irony is that in Saskatchewan, we have The Good Samaritan Overdose Act, which absolves those who call 911 or seek medical assistance during an overdose or medical emergency of any criminal liability regarding a simple drug possession offence if the evidence for that offence was acquired as a result of the requested intervention. Indeed, a rather weighty conviction was recently overturned in Saskatchewan on the basis of this act. This is all to say that my friend’s life likely could have been saved at little legal or personal expense for those at the scene. All that said, cowards be damned.
He was 43 and surrounded by devoted friends and family. He was a skilled tradesman. He was a loyal friend, and cared much more about his friends and family than he did about himself. He was also a gifted artistic mind, a strong athlete, and perhaps the most charismatic, flamboyant, outgoing, and funny person I’ve ever met. The world lost some of its luster as a result of his departure; for his daughter, family, and close friends, the loss and grief are world-shattering.
As I walk down Rideau Street and adjacent locations, I frequently observe poor souls strung-out; on occasion, I witness them dying or straight-up dead. Men and women are being physically and spiritually destroyed in this country, the proximate causes of which are drugs. The bodies of loved ones remain for medics to cover with sheets and transport away to some cold, impersonal destination. Who were these people, these unfortunate souls? I believe that they were a reflection of our nihilistic society. Nobility, duty, strength, truth, beauty, loyalty, and honour have, I observe, been systematically devalued. Creature comforts, the minimization of personal risk at all cost, and superficial interests or pursuits have been elevated. In other words, Canada has become demoralized. We are fighting a war here in Canada, and it is principally a communitarian or spiritual one.
The stigma of drug addiction is ancillary to the actual problem at hand; yet, as far as I can tell, the political focus is on “reducing the stigma.” Though the stigma surrounding drug use might in some cases constitute a barrier preventing individuals addicted to drugs from seeking help or treatment, this focus is, I reckon, myopic. First, it seems to me that negative social pressures (of which stigma is a form), when appropriately applied, can have positive practical results (i.e., they provide a powerful disincentive for engaging in antisocial, self-destructive behaviours). Second, it also seems that no right-minded family member or friend of someone morbidly addicted to drugs is going to rejoice merely because their loved one is, despite still being locked in a death embrace with opiates, say, nevertheless not experiencing the social stigma as a result of their addiction. Reducing the stigma is at best a double-edged sword, and, for that matter, it concerns the societal symptoms, not the social, psychological, and spiritual disease itself.
The support of friends and family is also a complex factor: on the one hand, individuals addicted to drugs need to know that they are deeply cared for. On the other hand, the feelings of guilt over friends and family suffering on their behalf or as a result of their addictions can weigh heavily on their minds. I have no answers here, and merely gesture to a practical or ethical entanglement that needs to be carefully dissected on an individual basis.
Those addicted to drugs and suffering from their addictions need our help, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their descent into addiction. Their personal stories are often tragic and command sympathy. Nevertheless, an all too common reaction is to impute moral blame or attempt to explain-away addiction as a function of some personal moral failing, vice, or frailty. But even these moralizers are not absolved of their duty to help. For, as George Santayana, a sage voice from the turn of the 20th century, explains:
We do not ask whether the wretch lying robbed and wounded by the wayside deserves to be helped. He needs help, and that suffices to secure unreservedly our spiritual sympathy. His calamity is external to him. In respect to it, there is integrity in his soul, however distracted and criminal may have been the business that led him into this plight. We disregard these circumstances, which we feel to have been accidents in that blind life, snares into which a poor animal soul was drawn insensibly, filth that clotted and distorted it against its primary intent. Now in his extremity the broken ruffian is again a child. He asks only to breathe, to sleep, to be nourished, not to be tormented. And with that elementary Will in him the Will in every spirit is unanimous: all recognize the common enemy, physical misfortune, physical disaster. (The Realm of Spirit)
I, too, do not believe that addiction targets its victims indiscriminately, ethically speaking, but here my logic runs quite contrary to that of the aforementioned moralizers. For, I see strength in those poor souls on Rideau and adjacent streets; such strength often goes unseen. Who could survive even intermittently out there like that without a certain strain of profound resilience? Moreover, I have found that it is quite often the brave, the strong, the creative, the independent-minded, the poetical, the charismatic, and in general those who desire more and want some enjoyment, fulfillment, or thrill that lies beyond who are drawn to drugs. In a world that promotes and finds a place for such creative or visionary impulses, these are the sort of individuals who would, as it were, give birth to stars.
I often wonder: has Canada become a nation of last men (and women)? Relatedly, are the strong-willed, aspirational, would-be champions among us systematically denigrated, marginalized, despised, and destroyed? My best friend was destroyed. He was, to my mind, the strongest among us. In the land of the small, the big and tall either perish or crawl.
I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star…. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star….Behold, I show you the last man. ‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks. The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small….[T]he last man lives longest.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra