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Update drug laws says vicar who lost his cousin to addiction

by Donna Birrell

A vicar in the north east of England is calling for a new approach to tackling drug addiction.

Rev Jon Canessa says the region has the highest drug death rate in the country with almost 4,900 people dying of drug poisoning last year. 

But he says drug laws haven't been updated for over 50 years and are "not fit for purpose."  

Rev Canessa who is Newcastle Cathedral's lead for the Lantern Initiative, a programme for those experiencing homelessness, addiction and poor mental health, says the law needs to change to enable people to access units where they can inject illegal substances.

He told Premier: "We are recognising that because of the status of drugs and drug taking people are using drugs in an unsafe way. It's my contention that if we're going to seriously love our neighbour, we have to look at and ask who our neighbour is, and who are the neighbours to people who are in chronic addiction.

"One of the ways that we can we can do this in a practical way is make sure that they don't die."

Rev Canessa is supporting the idea of Overdose Prevention Centres (OPCs) which are mobile units where people can inject illegal substances while supervised by a health professional.

Speaking personally, Rev Canessa told Premier his cousin, who was a drug user took her own life: "As someone who was using heroin, she ultimately just couldn't stop. 

"In the eyes of the law, she was a criminal. But she spent the last two weeks of her life - we didn't know this at the time - making amends to everybody. 

"She was giving people gifts and left a diary entry saying: 'Look our relationship has been strained because I've had to steal things from you, I've had to do things which have brought shame on you, and which caused you huge amounts of pain. I can't find a way to get off drugs, I can't stop. 

'The only way I can stop hurting those people who I love the most and who love me the most is just to end my life.' That is really tragic."

Rev Canessa wants a wider conversation in churches around the issue of drug addiction: "We don't talk about it nearly enough and we don't talk about it in our churches.

"Before coming to Newcastle, I worked as a chaplain to the street and homeless community in Cambridge. 

"I've taken far too many funerals for people who've died way younger than they should have in tragic circumstances. Our services are not geared up to enabling people to respond to a window of opportunity where drug users may want to access support.

He says attitudes towards drug users need to change: "It's viewed through the lens of criminality with our existing drugs law. So we need to recognise the correlation between chronic addiction and trauma.

"If we know people's stories, rather than get too quick to judge -  Jesus himself says, 'Do not judge because you will be judged.' It's to see beyond the label. It's to look at the person and not to ask what is wrong with them, but to ask 'What happened to you?'"

The government says OPCs are illegal and has no plans to introduce the units.


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