The “I am...” series was designed to honour and amplify the voices behind the eclectic array of identities we have at UBCO. In it I hope to elucidate and ultimately assist in the humanization of the non-traditional ways of being, lifestyles, and racial/ethnic identities within the student body. After all, if we do consider ourselves a body, that is to say, an integrated whole, we must recognize the way that our manifold differences and idiosyncrasies help to unite us in our shared personhood. The “I am...” series will serve as an open forum for persons who have deviated from the lines that separate gender, race, ability, and “sensible ways of living” to engage in meaningful and constructive discussion about the institution and the communities they live in.
In this first instalment I had the privilege of chatting with Lucas Standing (They/Them/He/Him), a fourth-year psychology major pursuing their honours and president of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter at UBCO.
Lucas offers a unique and radical perspective on drug use and about the people who use them. They are unabashed about their personal drug use and the transformative role it has had in their life. They have displayed considerable courage in their willingness to confront the history of punitive drug policy and stigmas that exist in Canada. Lucas is endowed with a well-spring of knowledge and most importantly compassion that uniquely positions them to not only discuss but situate this topic within a humanistic lens.
The beginning of our discussion centres on the research interests that Lucas possesses, which focuses on the barriers to access drugs and the impacts this has on the mental health of persons who use drugs. Their research examines psychedelics in particular, given the illegal status of that drug class. Of particular note during this conversation was an emergence about the watershed moment that ignited their interest in the use of psychedelics in therapy. Lucas recounts that their adolescence was a period of great tumult in their life when they were grappling in the throes of anxiety, repression, and a time in which they generally retreated from the world in both a physical and cognitive sense. Around this time, they also began to slip into problematic and excessive cannabis use, which although never became an addiction, exacerbated their overwhelming desire to withdraw from the world. The impetus for change emerged through their first time using LSD.
“It brought with it this wave of emotions, that at the time felt really chaotic, but it was really what I needed.”
They go on to elaborate on the psychedelic drug precipitated an inundation of feeling that disrupted many of their distorted and harmful perceptions of themselves and the world.
They explain that psychedelics can break down people’s subjective self identity, through a process called “ego death.” Self identity is constructed by perspectives, habits, or behavioural tendencies that are otherwise hard to change.
From my own struggles with episodes of anxiety, I was moved by the import of Lucas’ words in the sense that the psychedelic experience seemed to be dismantling some of the core cognitive and behavioural factors that make depression and anxiety such tenacious thorns in people’s lives.
This culminates into a powerful argument for the use of psychedelics in mental health interventions. We arrived at the conclusion that the drug functioned almost to catapult their personal development such that they were able to engage in introspective analysis that was less muddied by the mire of negativity. Armed with this new perspective and insight, Lucas was able to acquire a foothold for the positive self work they needed to make change in their life.
Analyzing the “I” in Addiction- Empathy as An Antidote to Stigma
We then shifted gears and began to unpack the topic of problematic drug use as a wider social ill. It was of particular importance to me that we anchored our conversation around how it unfolds in people’s lives. I could never understand the switch that goes off in the minds of some people when they learn that another person is wrestling with drug addiction. The answer that kept circulating in our talk was, of course stigma, but also the existence of a moral model of drug use that exists in society and assigns tags of disgrace to persons who find themselves in this life circumstance.
This model over emphasises the role of choice with regard to troublesome drug use and contributes to an austere and unforgiving outlook that frames persons who use drugs as miscreants who have chosen to be a burden on society.
Lucas openly decries this moral model view in preference for the more evidence-based medical perspective. Within this conceptual framework, addiction is seen to unfold through a gradual breakdown of the circuitry involved in rational decision making and consequence processing.
“If anything, addiction is a disease of choice.”
Its not as though people are not aware of the potential risks to themselves, but the potential reward of the experience has too much of a hold over their choices.
This series of events can take hold and become compounded over time with continued drug use and all the while a person may believe that they are still in full control.
Addiction cements itself deeply in the neurology of our agency and is often bound up in our attempts to deal with important life challenges. Lucas found themself feeling the beginning of this pernicious pattern due to their anxiety that they fortunately recovered from without major disruption to their life or any development of addiction.
When we realize that persons living with problematic drug use have incurred significant erosion to their decision-making skills and are often grappling with sources of adversity that everyone can relate with, we also discover an important avenue for empathy. People can extend considerably greater support, avoid needless confrontation and produce environments that eliminate stigma when we recognize that their battle with harmful drug use is not an offence perpetrated against them.
“Often times people need to get worse before they get better, especially with drug use.”
The journey of overcoming a pattern of problematic drug use is commonly defined by many losses and plateaus in progress. For individuals seeking to support loved ones during this time the most important thing you can do is be a secure place of retreat where people can weather the often-chaotic reality of this arduous journey. In this space it is crucial that we communicate clear boundaries and a genuine empathetic understanding of a person’s struggles so as to help them re-establish themselves as the authors of their own life story.
Drugs and Humanity- Transcending Prejudice
Further supporting this punitive paradigm is the ideas of contamination that still find their way into the discourse surrounding drugs.
In order to disassemble this value-laden perception of drug use, I asked Lucas to help reframe the term drug from a socio-emotional perspective specifically as it relates to the natural impulses within the human condition.
Humans have had an almost quasi-symbiotic relationship with drugs that has withstood the test of time and influenced our biological and social development. Part of the reason behind why this connection has endured is because drugs perform a myriad of socio-emotional services for our species. Some of these invaluable functions include but are not limited to increasing productivity (focus/energy), spirituality/religion, social cohesion, and celebration by altering our conscious experience of the world and of ourselves.
This bond has been marred by political agendas and the war on drugs that taints our perception about this relationship as criminal and unsanitary. However, for the vast majority of our history and even now, the core focus of human drug use has been on enhancing our experience of life in a holistic sense. Drug use can be a key to joy, transcendence, and connection experienced more fully. The persistence of human experimentation with and habitual use of a variety of drugs throughout the ages in spite of this crusade against people speaks to this fundamental truth.
Lucas identifies it as a fundamental right that people should be able to alter their consciousness without fear of repercussion.
They also make an interesting analogy that underscores the myopic and sometimes contradictory stance people have in relation to drugs. In comparison to sex, people in Canada are quite permissive in their allowance for a range of conversations about sex that identifies where sexual activity can be safe and enjoyable and where not.
Much of the dialogue that still prevails today is quite restrictive and focusing primarily on the harms that do not align with the experience of many people. Lucas acknowledges that they have had both positive and growthful experiences with drugs and more unpleasant experiences.
Even their experimentation with more drugs with a higher potential for misuse like cocaine was helpful for stretching empathetic understandings of persons who have become dependent.
Lucas believes that their limited number of cocaine experiences was helpful for them to empathize with those who use cocaine regularly. Although Lucas does not plan to explore this avenue further, their experience illustrates how drug use can serve the function of learning and exploration and does not always form dependency.
Therefore, it is imperative in the enterprise against stigma that we initiate a deliberate expansion of the situational repertoire that our cultural psyches associate with drug use.
We must go beyond the images of defeated people seeking an escape and see as well the empowered individuals seeking to extend their awareness and deepen their connections with others.
The Sting of Stigma At Home
Shifting from this general discussion to a more local orientation, I wanted to get a sense of how stigma has affected UBCO students in particular. Throughout last year, Lucas worked with Campus Health and their harm reduction team. The harm reduction team is a group that provides guidance on low-risk drug use and overdose prevention to educate the campus and broader community on substance use.
They are also the first initiative in Canadian universities to use a spectrometer to analyze drug samples for contamination by more dangerous substances such as fentanyl and benzodiazepines. Lucas stresses that other universities should follow UBC’s lead on this because of its far-reaching benefits for all. The HaRT team runs drug checking services from in UBCO, Vernon and Penticton and offer a range of services beyond just drug checking, such as naloxone training and distribution, take-home fentanyl test strips, referrals to support services, sterile supplies, and more.
Drawing from their experience with campus health, Lucas was able to share a number of revealing trends in drug use on campus. The research conducted by Campus Health in 2020 indicated that on average drug use increased during the height of the pandemic with social isolation being a widely reported factor behind it.
Although the main drugs being used at UBC were party drugs like MDMA, alcohol, and cocaine, there is a small group of people experimenting with drugs that are more dependency forming and carry risks of overdose.
It is within the lives of these persons that the scourge of stigma in the university environment becomes a serious risk factor that can cause enormous harm and loss. One of the biggest barriers that Campus health faced when Lucas worked there was the lack of student awareness on campus procedures related to drug use. The truth is that students are left in a place of relative ignorance regarding drug use and the consequences of it on campus allows for a lot of fear and stigma to thrive.
“The university needs a more affirmative stance on drug use that aims to open conversations and doesn’t judge or punish, or isn’t suggestive or vague about the possibility of punishment”.
In absence of this clarity, students perceive a lot of barriers to getting answers to deal with a number of problems related to drug use. As it stands the typical “just say no” approach remains hidden between the lines of the student code, leaving room for the dominant and stigma-entrenched moral model to keep hold. Without an open declaration of their alliance with the interests and well-being of students, many students can find themselves paralyzed over what to do in drug-related circumstances.
The Action Plan- The Path to a more Drug-Positive environment at UBC
Lucas is at the helm of a group attempting to ameliorate this situation. As president of the CSSDP chapter at UBC one of their major projects is focused on getting a medical amnesty policy (MAP) into action. If passed, students making the call for help during a drug-related medical emergency like an overdose event would be protected from disciplinary action from the university if they themselves possess drugs.
Currently the reality is that students can be expelled from their courses or kicked out of residence for possessing drugs. Although the final decision on any matter requiring disciplinary action would be up to the discretion of the university, many students will still perceive the lack of a MAP as a barrier for fear of punishment.
Fortunately, I am confident in the assiduous work that Lucas and CSSDP will provide substantive assistance and improvement in this issue. My writing process was guided by an earnest conviction that their experience and knowledge would help educate and stir hope for change.
I hope you have enjoyed this segment of the “I am…” series and I look forward to bringing even more stories of the atypical and the inspiring to the fore.