"A big part of harm reduction is about the language that we use. You know you don't say that somebody's clean, you say somebody stopped using, because those words are very judgmental. We stay away from words like junkie and addict and pot head or crackhead. Those words are really, really filled with so much emotion and so much negativity."
Colin H. Johnson
Colin H. Johnson immigrated to Canada in 1972 from Jamaica. Colin has been a drug user for 40 years. He presently co-facilitates with the Ontario Harm Reduction Network (OHRN) and was employed as the African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) Harm Reduction MSM peer educator at Black CAP.
As a founding member of the Gay Freedom Movement in Jamaica and the Gay Alliance at York (Toronto), he has been an advocate for gay and Black rights since the 1970s.
Colin mentions The Works in this podcast as a place that provides programs and services to reduce drug-related harm and prevents the spread of communicable diseases for vulnerable populations.
He also mentions Fentanyl: A high-potency synthetic opioid, considered to be up to 40 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine; and, Methyl fentanyl: An active fentanyl-related drug, considered to be significantly more potent than fentanyl.
An additional list of drugs are identified by Toronto’s drug checking service.
WARNING! This podcast contains a discussion around drug use and language which may be triggering to some audiences. Audience discretion is advised.
L Lovell 00:00
Welcome to the second episode of Facing Addiction. I'm Lana Lovell, the producer and host. For this episode, guest Colin H. Johnson, harm reduction consultant, drug use strategist and member of the LGBTQ community, shares his thoughts on drug use in the Toronto area. This podcast contains discussions around drug use, harm reduction, and sexuality, which may be triggering to some audience members. So we advise discretion. We encourage you to care for your own mental health and overall well being. If anything you hear on this podcast is triggering for you, please go to the website, workmanarts.com for a list of mental health resources. Welcome to the podcast.
Colin H Johnson 01:04
Most people don't understand why we are having all these overdoses. And the reason we are having all these overdoses is because of a tainted drug supply. And when I say tainted, what I mean by that is, let us suppose I go to buy cocaine. But my dealer is cutting out the cocaine on a table, but he's also doing fentanyl, or car fentanyl or whatever the case may be. But in many cases, you're not cleaning the surface before they start doing the drugs. So those drugs are now mixed together; so my cocaine with the fentanyl. So I think I'm just doing cocaine. Well, I'm not. I'm actually doing cocaine mixed with fentanyl. So what I might do for my normal cocaine hit is not going to be the same because of the fentanyl in it; that leads to overdose.
Colin H Johnson 01:56
So I'm Colin Johnson. I've lived in Canada for a number of years. I am HIV positive and have been for 40 years. I'm a person who uses substances. I've been using drugs for quite a while. And when I became HIV positive, my reasoning for using drugs changed in some way. So prior to, prior to being, prior to being diagnosed, my, my drug use was mostly for entertainment, to go to have a good time, to stay up so I could dance, and in us relax and enjoy the weekend or the time. When I became HIV positive, my drug use changed. It became more of just helping me cope with what was then a diagnosis of death. And that that became a major and critical part of my overall drug use at that point in time. It's been 40 years now. So my drug uses again change. So I no longer use it to escape per se. Although there are times when, yes, because I do have to deal with depression. Friends do that still dying, but not from HIV per se. They're dying now from comorbidities. They're dying from depression, some in one or two cases suicide. So I still use drugs just for the escape, and mostly for sex. Yep.
Colin H Johnson 03:17
So when I do introduce myself, I tend to introduce myself as a black gay man living with HIV who also does substances. I sit on a number of committees, ranging from the City of Toronto's decriminalization submission for substances. I sit on what's called the Canadian Coalition for HIV Legal Reform. I'm on the steering committee there. I do consulting for organizations when it comes to harm reduction. So I'm really, I really do a lot of work relating to party and play, the LGBTQ community, when it comes to harm reduction and it impacts African, Caribbean, black people across the city--actually, in some cases, across the country. I also work with what's called the Working Group for Inhalation, which is a group that is working on getting inhalation overdose-prevention sites in the city of Toronto. And I sit on the Safer Supply Working Group for the Canadian development policy, drug policy. And then lastly, I am on the Toronto Drugs Strategy Implementation Panel, which is a City of Toronto body that oversees harm reduction and drug strategies relating to the City of Toronto.
Colin H Johnson 04:41
How I got into harm reduction was because I saw that people were dying. There were no clean fits. There were no clean syringes. There was no understanding and trying to get people educated about the drugs that we're using, the effects of those drugs. And that started back in 1989. And that was when the whole harm reduction philosophy started come in. Harm reduction was also because of another reason, which was not just only about drugs, but was also about safer sex; being able to give people condoms, lube, and then then syringes, the, you know, the water that went along with that. So all of that, for me is how I came into the whole harm reduction. So harm reduction, it is a philosophy, it is a philosophy of trying to reduce the harms that people have, again, it's supposed to be non judgmental. It's also supposed to empower people who use drugs to make the right decisions. It's supposed to give people just a big part of it about the language that we use. So you know, you don't say that somebody is clean, you say somebody stopped using, because those words are themselves very judgmental. And, you know, we stay away from words like junkie and addict and pothead or you know, or crackhead because those words are really, really filled with so much emotion, and so much negativity that yes, we definitely do stay away from that.
Colin H Johnson 06:09
The other thing, I think that part of the challenge with harm reduction is that there are a lot of people who don't quite understand it. A lot of people think that it means that we're giving people drugs. And that's not what we're doing. I'm going to make a suggestion to you. And I'm what I'm going to say is that the majority of people who do drugs, never ever need a hospital; you never hear about them; they never need, police never have to be called; nothing. They have no interactions at all with the authorities. That's the majority of people who use drugs. People use drugs for various reasons. Some people use drugs to cope with life. Some people use drugs to cope with depression. Some women use drugs to cope with the fact that they're dealing with a domestic violence, because it's the only way they can put up with it; then you have people who use drugs just to go out and have fun. You do have people who use it for self medication, but you also have people use it for pain.
Colin H Johnson 07:06
I think that's another thing that we need to look at. Substance use is a continuum. Alcohol causes more deaths and more problems than any other drug. But it is legal. It is legal. And what people forget, is that alcohol has safe consumption sites. They're called bars. But people forget that. When you go to a bar, you know that you're getting one ounce of let's say, Brandy, you know what's in it, you know, it's been tested, etc, etc. If you drink too much, they kick you out, or they call you a taxi. That's a safe consumption site. All we are asking as people who use drugs is that we have we get provided safe consumption sites.
Colin H Johnson 07:49
Well, I think first of all, we need people to admit that they are that we need the 80% who aren't saying that they're using drugs to say that they're using drugs, I mean, and stop the hypocrisy. I think that's one way to start. But I also think that certain communities need to start saying that, yes, we use drugs. Drugs are used, I mean, an African, Caribbean, and black thing where people don't talk about substance use, which I think is sad. So first of all, I think part of the challenge is realizing that there's not one homogenous black community, I think we have to start with that. The perspectives of somebody from Jamaica are going to be quite different from the perspective from somebody from, let's say, South Africa, or, or Nigeria for various reasons, be there the values, culture, etc, etc. So there's not going to be one sort of message that you could send out, that's going to apply to everybody. And I think we have to be realistic on that. That being said, I suspect part of the way to start is by using the very same mechanisms that have been used to get messages through which is the church, simple. Mothers, who are are some of the most important factions in the Caribbean black community; to get mothers on board; to get mothers to realize and start talking about it, you know. But we need to have open forums on these things, to get people to come to these discussions.
Colin H Johnson 09:17
But there's also the whole demonization and criminalization of substance use. I mean, America has more people jailed in the world than any other country. It's something like I think it's 2.8, 2.1 million people now or something. It's ridiculous. And the vast majority of those people are black people for drug charges, which is ridiculous. And Canada, the numbers are quite same. When you look on a proportional basis. The majority of people in Canadian jails for drugs are Blacks. One of the things that I do, I really do appreciate, I'm quite aware of is, especially when it comes to cannabis, there is an issue of youth smoking cannabis until their brains are developed. There is that, and we're getting a lot of lot of data to show that that can be problematic. And on that, yes, most definitely. I remember when I used to go dancing in my youth, and as I said, my youth and I go to a bar, I dance from like 10 until three, and then I'd go home, and I'll be it for the weekend. Yeah, I know, I maybe I do one hit of acid, but it did not become my going and running out to grab. But I think we need to realize, remember, this is that a lot of the drug, the drug message, or the drug story now involves the oxycodone and the Oxy you know, which which were middle America, it was not the dark kids.
Colin H Johnson 10:43
A key element of harm reduction, is knowing your drug. It's critical that you know your drug. What are you getting, and then what you can take, you know, so one of the things we tell people, is, if you're just getting a new batch of drugs, try; do a little, what we call a tester. Because not I mean, seriously, not all drugs out there are same, and what what you buy from your dealer this week, not necessarily going to be the same stuff you're going to get maybe even five hours later. So you know, always do a tester to make sure that you know what the effects are. And then the other issue that we're now facing is that there is a tainted drug supply. And I think most people are aware of this. And we also know that a lot of members of the LGBTIQ community also suffer from trauma, overall, just just just coming out, you know, the threats, the bullying, all of these things have effects on people's mental health. So it's you know, so again, there are people use drugs to cope.
Colin H Johnson 11:49
Kids today, just like yesterday, or the generation before, kids are going to do stuff that they're told not to do. Kids are going to have sex. All of these things kids are going to do. Kids, it's curiosity; it's peer pressure; it's wanting to belong. It's all of these factors, by people or children who do this. The best you can do is to educate them and have conversations with them about what's out there. The only way you're going to get that is by speaking to somebody in harm reduction. Because the average person on the street will not know. They don't. And if it should happen, sadly, and it does, that your child should become addicted or start to suffer from that extreme use of substances, again, the only people who are going to be able to help are people with harm reduction. So either way you look at it, it's going to be people with harm reduction.
Colin H Johnson 12:47
Right now, as a long-term HIV survivor, I go through bouts of depression. It's just part of the medications that I have been on. And that's not going to stop. I'm not going to it's not going to stop, I'm going to be on medication for the rest of my life. So yes, every now and then I do take drugs to get me through that. Okay. And it is important. These are the things that we can do. But the bottom line is, drugs are here to stay. I think this attitude that we have of abstinence, as the must-be thing is unrealistic. Because for some people, some people have to use a drug just to be able to function. Okay? It might be a joint, it might be a hit, it might be a drink, but just to function just to go out and face this world. Let's be honest, this world is a not a very loving place.