English poor laws, dating back centuries, were termed as a form of “relief” for the poor. However, in reality they were simply a means to remove poverty from sight. Children were arrested and put into workhouses, men were put in stocks or returned to their city of birth, sex workers and those with major mental illnesses were jailed. These poor laws, lasting into the early 1900s in Canada, were rooted in moral and class assumptions that poverty was a personal failing, and to see poverty was an affront to the non-poor. The solution clearly was to remove poverty from sight, to see people experiencing poverty as delinquent, a scourge, a blight on society.
Yesterday an interaction between a store owner and two individuals allegedly injecting drugs gained significant attention. As can be seen in the video linked in the London Free Press story, the store owner crosses the street, yells and threatens the individuals with a bat, until they stand up and move along. As highlighted in the article responses to the incident have been very mixed, with the majority of Twitter and Facebook comments applauding the act as a means of cleaning up the core, while a minority of others suggest that the threat was both illegal and ineffective in addressing addiction.
What is most interesting and worrisome to me is the underlying narrative when I press individuals who support the actions of the store owner. I highlight that threatening someone with a weapon is actually an illegal act and the response is that the visible and public use of illegal drugs is itself a threat. There is an implicit and often explicit sentiment that someone who uses drugs publicly deserves to be assaulted because they themselves were first to commit an affront to others who had to observe them. Therefore, the premise is that to see someone experiencing addiction engage in their addiction is a harm to the observer.
This brings us back to the poor laws of preceding centuries. The same classist and inhumane assumptions that seek to hide poverty out of sight drive the desire to hide addiction out of sight. Not only is this completely ineffective in actually addressing addiction, it is a sign of a society that is willing to see some as less human because of their health condition.
Let’s keep some perspective: The person who suffers most from the public use of drugs is not the person who observes it, it’s the person caught in the grips of addiction.