Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis

By Rebecca Haines-Saah

by Benjamin Perrin
Viking
2020/$26.00/304 pp.

Benjamin Perrin’s Overdose is the first book in Canada to address a public health emergency that has claimed the lives of over 16,000 Canadians. After the Yukon and BC, Alberta has the third-highest rate of overdose deaths in the country; in the first six months of 2020 there were 449 overdose deaths here, where many of the harm-reduction initiatives Perrin discusses have been threatened since the UCP was elected.

Perrin, who grew up in Calgary and is now a law professor at UBC, writes clearly for the lay reader, structuring chapters around questions such as: “Why is fentanyl killing so many people?,” “Can we prosecute our way out?” and “Don’t supervised injection sites enable drug use?” For each topic, Perrin sets to weighing the evidence and debunking myths about addiction and how government should respond to it, especially the assumption that policies focused on scaling up drug prohibition and enforcement will deter use and harms.

Insights about the failed “War on Drugs” are interspersed with evidence from scientific papers and conversations with 42 interviewees. Perrin gives a great deal of space to medical professionals and first responders, but less to the experiences of people directly affected. Advocacy organizations representing drug users and parents who have lost children to overdose, however, are included. Disingenuously, none of the interviewees challenged Perrin about his time as a policy adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper—another Conservative government that was overtly hostile to harm reduction and did its best to shut down Insite, Canada’s first supervised consumption site. At points his prose veers into “trauma porn,” with anecdotes about children found alone with the bodies of their dead parents and buckets of excrement in homeless encampments.

Popular culture is replete with addiction redemption stories, and so it’s not surprising that Perrin chose to write this book from the standpoint of a compassionate yet skeptical outsider, whose Christian faith compels him to try to connect and understand. As a researcher whose work focuses on this topic, I found myself agreeing with many of the book’s insights, but extremely frustrated that it is Perrin’s book that is the first to be published on this topic in Canada. Personally, there are many other analyses I would rather read from people who use drugs and from community activists who have dedicated their lives to ending Canada’s harmful drug policies. But if you are looking for a book that will convince your conservative Albertan relatives that what they are hearing from our current government is not based in evidence and will only deepen our overdose death crisis, then this is definitely the book for you.

Rebecca Haines-Saah is an assistant professor at the U of C.

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