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Putting the “I” back in medicine

Self-medication should be a right

Self-medication is the use of drugs or alcohol to reduce emotional distress. It’s widely accepted that using drugs for these reasons can lead to addiction. However, the link between self-medication and addiction should not negate our natural, inherent right to medicate our bodies as we see fit.

Just like prescription medication, street drugs can be used and they can be abused. The potential for benefit or for harm must not be reduced to what’s legal and what’s illegal. The growing tolerance of the medicinal use of marijuana is a prime example. Another: heroin is still prescribed by doctors in the U.K. as a remedy for severe pain.

Susan Davis, coordinator of the B.C. Coalition of Experimental Communities, regrets the increased drug regulations that have accompanied the government’s renovations of single-room occupancy residences in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Vancouver.

“A zero-tolerance for drug use policy is in direct conflict with recommendations for post-traumatic stress,” explains Davis. “[Enforcing prohibition] is punishing people for symptoms of violence they’ve experienced.”

Both leftists and libertarians – whether they argue for harm-reduction strategies or support individual medical freedom – agree that prohibition is not the answer.

Gabor Mate, a doctor who has worked with addicts in the Downtown Eastside, is in favour of the decriminalization of street drugs. In an interview with the Toronto Star, she explains, “Prohibition doesn’t work. Addiction happens because people are traumatized, not because drugs are available.”

“Unless we put medical freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize an undercover dictatorship. To restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of medical science,” said Benjamin Rush in 1787. Rush was one of the founding fathers of the United States and a pioneer of therapeutic approaches to addiction. His wish never came true: medical freedom was not put into the American Constitution.

A lack of protections for medical choice has resulted in a medical-scientific community whose infallibility is rarely questioned. Western medicine offers many benefits. However, time and time again, it also fails to provide holistic treatment. It also causes harm: the American health care system is responsible for between 225,000 and 284,000 deaths annually from unnecessary surgeries, pharmaceuticals, and infections caught in hospitals, according to Barbara Starfield, a professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In Quebec hospitals, the super-virus Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus plagues patients – and as the name explains, the virus has become resistant to antibiotics due to its over-exposure to them.

Whether or not you agree with the legalization of cocaine or heroin for self-medication, the idea of taking an interest in your own health is worth consideration. Rather than always deferring our health to other authorities and bureaucratic institutions, we should take an active role in our own well-being.

Whitney Mallett thinks she’s a U2 English student. She’s also The Daily’s features editor. Write her at