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Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy event highlights need for rural harm reduction

Almost 100 people attended the event to learn more about local harm-reduction strategies and resources currently available in the community

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Even though everyone has a role to play in harm reduction, it can be hard to figure out where to start, especially in rural areas. 

That's why almost 100 people attended a free half-day forum run by the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy at Aboyne Hall on Thursday morning to learn more about how they can participate in harm reduction, prevent substance use stigma and find related resources available in Wellington County. 

Featuring seven panelists with lived experience or work with people impacted by the drug poisoning crisis and five speakers from several organizations like the Sanguen Health Centre, the event ended with an optional tour of the mobile health van and a demonstration of how to use nasal naloxone. 

"For me, reducing harm reduction...(is) recognizing that life has harms and we're always all trying to reduce the risks in life," said Arthur resident and panelist Logan Legate, during the event. "It means kindness and open-mindedness, saving lives, empowering people. Many people I know wouldn't be alive without it and I like that my friends are being cared for in a dignified way."

As there are "barely any" harm reduction services in the county, Legate said the stigma related to substance use is "way higher" compared to what is seen in the city and they often see people who pick up supplies and education for others because "many are worried about being seen at the van by their neighbours or the community." 

Word of mouth, which is "so important for keeping the community safe" is often delayed in the county and can lead to "devastating outcomes," said Legate. 

The importance of language and its impact on safety and stigma was also highlighted. 

"We have a lot of deep-rooted belief systems that people are choosing addictions, that they're making bad choices and if they would just choose different, none of this would hurt so much," said panelist Jamie Macbeth. "(But) when we are focused on people choosing addiction, it just increases shame in the brain, which escalates people further." 

As it takes longer for an ambulance to respond in rural areas, Legate said it takes more naloxone to support someone until help can arrive and that's why having a more permanent resource available is important for substance users, especially in places like Wellington North and Minto. 

County paramedic and panelist Dawn Koehler said the county responded to 170 calls related to drug poisonings or substance use in 2023, although she thinks more incidents went unreported. 

"I love mobile outreach...but it doesn't take away the need for brick and mortar, community-based, by the community for community grounded support," said Macbeth. "We need more pieces of the puzzle working together." 

Following the event, Puslinch Coun. Sara Bailey, said she intends to take the information she learned during the event to start a conversation in her community. 

Wellington North councillor Penny Renken also attended the event. 

"I think from my perspective, there is no conversation (happening) around drug poisoning (in Puslinch)- you don't hear anything within the community which is a bit of a red flag for me," said Bailey. "So I think...we need to start having a conversation about why these (naloxone kits) are important, what they're for and who may be benefiting that we're not hearing from in the rural community." 

At least 27 people died from drug poisoning in Wellington County in 2023, up from 22 in 2022.

There were 435 reported substance-related incidents in 2023, compared to 374 in 2022. 

Isabel Buckmaster is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for GuelphToday. LJI is a federally-funded program.

About the Author: Isabel Buckmaster, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Isabel Buckmaster covers Wellington County under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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