Garth Mullins. (Photo: Grady Mitchell)

Topics: Justice | Interview

Garth Mullins on the next challenge for drug-use activists

Our deaths don't rate for most politicians, the advocate and podcaster says

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Activist and journalist Garth Mullins lives in Vancouver, where he is a strong advocate for his fellow drug users. He is the host and executive producer of Crackdown, a podcast about the overdose crisis told from the perspective of those living through it. 

Mullins spoke with Alex Mlynek.

On existing: This is my second overdose crisis. And in the first one, I was using pretty strong heroin and there were no safe injection sites. And I sometimes did worry that I was going to overdose in a place where I was using by myself. So I did this thing where after I used, I would get up and walk out the door and try and be on the street, so that if I overdosed I would be found. It sounds quite dramatic, but people want to find ways to be safer, they want to find ways to reduce the harm to themselves. And safe injections sites provide that.

Our existence is precarious or suppressed: you’re kicked out by cops, you can’t go in a lot of businesses, lots of landlords won’t rent to you and it can be hard to get a job. But safe injection sites are a place where you’re allowed to exist. That’s really important. 

On regulation: People are dying because they’re buying something that’s uncontrolled and contaminated. And the simplest way to stop that is to just have some regulation of that and assure what’s in that drug supply. That also makes the world better for everybody else. It takes organized crime out of the mix, as they’re not the ones supplying it, it means fewer hospital visits, fewer court visits, all kinds of things.

On challenge: There’s nothing in it for the politicians, right? Our deaths don’t rate for most of them. Drug users aren’t politically organized. We don’t vote in big blocks, and we don’t have very much economic power, which is what government responds to. Nothing great is generally handed down from on high. Civil rights have always had to be fought for and won — that’s the task ahead of us.

More on Broadview: Why Canada should decriminalize all drugs

On lived experience: Well, we’ve lived it, so we can show you what’s harmful. 

For example, it may be common sense to a lot of people to think, “Well, drugs are killing people, so you gotta arrest the drug dealers and put them in jail.” But I’ll tell you from personal experience, what happens when the underground drug supply is disrupted is it makes things more dangerous for everybody. We may have developed relationships with someone, we kind of trust a regular place where we get our drugs from, and all of a sudden that’s gone. So we have to go find somebody else that’s dealing some other formulation or version or their own mix. Maybe we have trouble finding it, so we’re in withdrawal and that can change our tolerance. And if your tolerance is different, you increase the likelihood of an overdose.

But people in power who are making the policy don’t think like that for the most part. And so they think they’re only stopping harms by arresting the dealers. I mean, I’d prefer a world where you could go to pharmacy instead of having to go to a dealer, but here we are. 

On loss: Over my life, maybe half the people that I came up with are gone from overdose. I did try to count one time and I got to about 50, and I stopped counting as I couldn’t really imagine the number that I might get to. And it comes in waves. You lose someone close to you and it really hurts and then you worry for the next person.

It seems like we drug users learn this terrible muscle memory of loss. And it doesn’t make it easier, but you’re just like, “Oh no, now I know what’s about to happen.”

On stigma: A lot of drug users go undercover because of all the stigma. But we’re everywhere. We’re in your workplace and in your community and in your church and in your neighbourhood. You might not recognize us, but we’re there.

A shorter version of this interview first appeared in Broadview’s March 2020 issue with the title “Garth Mullins.” 

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Alex Mlynek is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She’s written for such publications as Today’s Parent, Best Health and Quill & Quire.

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  • says:

    You read how tragic addiction can be, yet addiction use is growing. How sad - most suffer and die while most of us don't even care.

    Having said that - we as Christians need to call it what it is - sin. Users can't blame anyone else or their environment - it's a choice they make.
    Loving people without being condescending is difficult to do, I personally am at a loss on how to help drug addicts. It would be wonderful if Christian churches stepped up, rather than waiting for the government to intervene. There needs to be a support program to end addiction, rather than supporting the habit, which safe injection sites do.
    We need to remember, as difficult as it is to quit any habit - it's just as easy to become addicted. Addictions can be gluttony, greed, pornography and a list of others, not just drugs.

  • says:

    We have to be alive, to get clean and sober. Harm reduction strategies are vital healthcare, for Canadians who are marginalized by our society. The only reason I’m a member of the United Church is my spiritual journey of recovery.