This paper includes the voices of people who are members of a peer-led drug user group (SNAP) in Canada who are receiving heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) outside of a clinical trial. Drawing from critical drug studies, we problematize the criteria for severe opioid use disorder (OUD) from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, by exploring SNAP members’ experiences in relation to heroin-assisted treatment, and examining how SNAP participants’ narratives challenge conventional notions of what constitutes severe opioid use disorder.
Drawing on critical analysis and research guidelines developed by drug user unions and organizations, and critical methodological frameworks on ethical community-based-and-responsive research for social justice, in this paper we focus on semi-structured interviews conducted with 36 SNAP members at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Canada. We included opened ended questions about experiences prior to receiving HAT, experiences while receiving HAT, experiences of drug use and cessation, and future hopes.
Although SNAP participants were diagnosed as suffering from OUD, the DSM-5 criteria for OUD fails to encompass their diverse experiences of opioid use. Nor does the DSM diagnosis capture the complexities of their lived experience. The DSM OUD constructs an idea of addiction and the addicted person based on a list of symptoms thought to be associated with extended use of opioids. The problem with this is that many of these “symptoms” of drug use are, in the case of SNAP participants, tied to contextual issues of living in the DTES, experiencing structural vulnerability, and being the target of punitive drug policies and laws.
To label someone as having a severe disorder shifts the focus from political and social issues, including the lived experiences of people who use heroin. The DSM-5 de-contextualizes drug use. How addiction and heroin are constituted has political implications that will determine what types of services and programs will be set up. Treating a disorder, or a person with a disorder, requires a much different approach than understanding heroin use as a habit. SNAP, and their allies, are rupturing conventional ideas about heroin and taken for granted assumptions about people who use heroin.
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