'...Completely colonial': Opioid research study wrongly assumes 'poor people are addicts', expert says

·Contributing Reporter
·3-min read

A recent study found that low-income Canadians are almost four times more likely to die from opioids than high-income Canadians.

It also found that the poorest Canadians had five times the amount of visits to the emergency room for opioids than richer Canadians.

The results published in the journal Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada and composed by Researchers from the University of Waterloo looked at opioid-related deaths and hospitalizations in Canada over 17 years, from 2000 to 2017, through a "socioeconomic lens."

An expert found bias and stereotypes hidden in the study.

Dr. Elaine J Laberge, researches social class, classism, and poverty discrimination in Canadian universities. She was also born into generational poverty.

"This research is completely colonial," she explained. "It's this assumption that all poor people are addicts."

One issue Dr. Laberge found, is the narrative that people from poverty get together and become addicts.

She asks, where is the context?

"When you are so socially marginalized, and you don't have resources, and you don't have hope, that hope piece is really critical," she told Insider.

Although Dr. Laberge appreciates that this study discusses social class, she says it failed to tell the stories behind the numbers. When you come from poverty, either it's situational or generational.

There are structural systems in this country, she explains, that leave lower-class Canadians without all the necessities to survive, unlike middle to upper-class Canadians who have access to rehab, education, proper nutrition, and secure housing, to name a few.Dr. Elaine J Laberge

"This research may talk about social class. But it doesn't talk about colonialism. It doesn't talk about capitalism. It doesn't talk about neoliberalism. It doesn't provide us with any solutions to fix the problem. It doesn't provide us with hope," she said. "If we saw people's lives shaped by poverty as amazing human beings, then the narrative would change, and people doing this research, for the most part, would have to look at themselves for being contributors to the problem."

The main method used in the study to identify poor Canadians was to look at Canadian postal codes and find the income made in that household. The flaw in that, the researcher said, is the assumption that lower income equates to drug use and that the upper class does not.

The study also says, "researchers found in British Columbia that low SES (measured by the highest deprivation quintile) is associated with a greater reduction in life expectancy at birth due to overdose-related causes."

To Dr. Laberge, it implicates that poor people, specifically poor women, are addicted to opioids and getting pregnant. Although it's not blatant, it's subtle.

According to Dr. Laberge, class discrimination is not so much a definition; it's how you are treated.

A few years ago, when studying for her PhD, she consulted with a dentist for critical dental work, but, since she couldn't afford the $7,500 procedure, the dentist treated her horribly.

"When I got my first scholarship, I put it all into my teeth, and I cried my face off because it meant I had to work multiple jobs to go to school," she said.

In her own research, Dr. Laberge found that an antidote to class discrimination is community.

When we are in community, she said, with people who have shared or intersecting lived experiences, we can be profoundly supportive of one another.

"We spoke the same language, we cared about one another, we made sure each other had food, and mental health care and all these things that this research doesn't talk about."

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