Alberta Harm Reduction Advocate Challenges Government Focus on Abstinence

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April 17, 2022 • 28 minutes ago • 4 minutes of reading • Join the conversation

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CALGARI – In a hospital, a Calgary woman says she remembers feeling happy for the first time while the opioid raced through her body.

“When they gave me this intravenous hydromorphone, all the horrible things I felt just subsided,” said Ophelia Kara, 21.

“I felt that I could breathe again for the first time in a long time and in a sense for the first time.

Getting to know the hydromorphone sold under the Dilaudid brand will change everything for her.

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While stories of opioid use are often tragic – with thousands of deaths in Canada in recent years – Kara says their use has saved her life.

Kara does not bear her name for fear that this could jeopardize her prescription, as tensions in Alberta are growing over how to respond to the overdose crisis.

As the provincial government focuses on a recovery-based approach while reducing harm reduction services, Kara has become a well-known advocate in Calgary for services that support people who use drugs.

She not only struggles to save the city’s drug site from closure, but stresses that abstinence doesn’t work for everyone.

“I tried my best to stay sober. None of this worked, “Kara said. “I’m still very addicted, but I’m also more recovered and mentally healthy now than I ever was.”

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Drinking tea on the couch at her home in southwestern Calgary, Kara talks about her lonely childhood, in which she often chose the comfort of a textbook instead of making friends.

From an early age, she faces serious mental health problems such as depression, which continues into adulthood. Kara says her life reached its lowest level during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her work at a nightclub was stopped and her relationship with the man she loved was unstable. Unrelated sexual assault took her to the hospital in the summer of 2020, and she received a hydromorphone.

After that visit, she turned to street drugs – cocaine and fentanyl. She suffered multiple overdoses, one of which led to a massive seizure, which Kara says left her unconscious for an hour.

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Her father tried to force her to sober up by taking her to a small town in Mexico. It did not work out. She overdosed almost immediately after returning to Canada.

“I don’t recommend drug use to anyone,” Kara said, referring specifically to street drugs. It marked her life, she says, with hospital visits, toxic relationships, unbearable pain and broken relationships with family and friends.

It was on the Calgary drug site that staff helped her realize that there was an option to be “safer to use drugs without sobering up,” and she began researching.

In Alberta, there are opioid agonist treatment programs that prescribe potent opioid drugs, such as methadone and suboxone, to treat substance use disorders. Secure supply programs that offer alternatives to prescription street drugs are also becoming known throughout Canada.

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Kara says she was rejected by many doctors before finding one to prescribe Dilaudid.

In addition to therapy, she says the prescription drug helps her mental and physical health. This provides her with stability so that she can study and work while leaning on her passions, such as cross stitching and intercession.

“In general, the reason we say people need to sober up is the idea that someone who uses drugs can’t live a balanced life … that all he cares about is getting bloated.” says Kara.

“But now I’m more productive than when I was sober, because now I’m actually stable. I’m not in survival mode anymore. “

She carries a set of medicines that includes naloxone, sterile equipment, vitamin E oil for her skin and contact cards with local agencies, among other consumables for safer drug use. A pin attached to its mesh inside reads, “You can’t recover if you’re dead.”

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While abstinence may work for some people, says Keenan Ross, an Edmonton-based harm reduction nurse, recovery should instead be seen as any step that improves someone’s quality of life.

“If it means a less chaotic outcome than drug use, it’s a step towards recovery,” Ross said.

In a way, Kara is still like her younger self and can often be found with her head in a book. She plans to get a doctorate in chemistry and pharmacology to find out how drug use can be safer.

Kara says she chose the name Ophelia after reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where a young noblewoman with that name dies of suicide after suffering many evils from men in her life.

“I wanted to give her a better ending than the one she chose.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 17, 2022.

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