Side event: Uncovering substance use-related stigma for police service members and their families

Organized by Canada with the support of Belgium, Honduras, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay, and the Community Addictions Peer Support Association (CAPSA), and the UNODC Prevention Treatment and Rehabilitation Section

Gord Garner (Canada) moderates.

Jennifer Saxe (Canada): Canada is very happy to support this side event with CAPSA. Important to hear from members of our communities we don’t usually hear from – and that includes police service members and their families. Canada believes in helping everyone, we put forward a resolution. [continued in French] We can help by using non-stigmatixing language, listening. Speaking up for ending stigma can do more than just help, it can save lives.

Gord Garner: None of us are speaking on behalf of our governments but we’re hoping our messages will resonate with governments. I had a lot of dreams last night where I was chased. Most of those chasing are police figures. We bring a message of kindness and compassion for all. A fundamental condition of our humanity is a safe and healthier life.

Peter Muyshondt, Police Chief, Belgium: My brother developed an addiction in his early years. He died needlessly, because of the way society treated him when he was unwell. This behavior continues despite consequences. We lack healthy responses to suffering as a society.

Diane Goldstein, California Retired Lieutenant: I spent a career fighting in and now diligently against the war on drugs. Working to improve the criminal justice system. It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people. My broter’s genetic predispition led him to mental issues and substance problems, mine led me to law enforcement. I failed him by stigmatizing his behavior, blaming it, looking at it through a law enforcement lens. Law enforcement destroyed his life but I was also able to help him bause I was in law enforcement. He found personal redemption in ensuring his friends survived. He was objectified by the law, and was viewed as a failure by people. Lack of mental health care and support reduced and dehumanized him to just an addict.

Joe Brownrigg, Ottawa, Canada: Personal history of substance use problems. How is stigma a barrier to care? The first day I joined the police I felt judgment. Some is necessary, my job is supposed to be hard, we’re very tough on each other. You have to guard your reputation, it’s everything. As my career progresses, I develop severe mental health issues, very sensitive to remaining confident, trying to be top level and somebody to rely on. I was posted to some difficult beats and saw some parallels on the streets and what was happening to me. Badge of Courage program – we had one of our own to stand up and say I’m not okay, I need help. That example that was set brought me in and is the reason I’m speaking today, it opens the door for others seeking an avenue for help. Some things we could do and were helpful for me in seeking recovery are like this offer of assistance. My organization brought in a private doctor with a holistic medical program, year-long, designed for officers, covered mental and physical health, nutrition, etc. When an organiztion commits to wellness iniatives, realizes your job is tough and you might get sick, that breaks the stigma barrier. There’s a Wellness section now, responsible for keeping officers healthy. Early intervention program also exists.

Suzanne : My name is Suzanne and I’m a human being. Coming together in a police cell, that owerwhelming feeling that I can’t do this anymore but don’t know how to stop. When you’re in the depths of this illness, failing over and over again, the shame was too much to bear. This is an illness that’s stigma and shame-based. The more we know about stigma the less it controls our lives. Substance use is not selective, it’s not a choice, it’s a family illness. When one person suffers, everyone suffers. We’re all in this together.

Gord Garner: We could have had a panel of nurses, doctors, scholars, homeless people – the conversation would be the same, nobody to turn to, nobody to understand.


Diane, Switzerland: Confiscation, detection, accidental exposure, deployment of naloxone is what we traditionally think of as police’s involvement with drugs. Police officers experience a lot of stress in their role, significant overall stress factors that can result in substance use problems.

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