By Arts Editor Brendan Barlow
“Fentanyl. Humanities Herbicide. 100 percent effective. Warning: Side effects include reducing… Residential B&E by 50 percent. Commercial B&E by 97 percent. Home Invasions by 52 percent. Auto Thefts by 63 percent.” These words were written on what looks like a cardboard box advertisement for a brand-new product. This comic was what more than one editor at The North Island Gazette deemed funny and appropriate enough to run as a comic in a recent issue. The implication of the comic is that those struggling with drug addiction can’t perpetrate crimes if they’re dead, and that this should be a good thing. This was presented as a comic, something meant to entertain and make a point.
For background, Fentanyl is an opiate painkiller with a similar, but much more potent, effect to heroin. It is used still in medical settings, and over the last year there have been a startling and devastating increase in the number of deaths directly related to overdoses of Fentanyl. This spike in overdoses seems to be due to an increase in recreational use of Fentanyl, as well as dealers and manufacturers of street drugs combining Fentanyl with their product, creating a more potent and often fatal product. In 2016, just in British Columbia, there have been nearly 500 deaths. This is a 61.6 percent increase, according to a report from CBC News.
The response to this repugnant example of bad judgment was something of a mixed bag. In a following issue of The Gazette, the letters page was full of responses to the comic which all shared a theme of disappointment with the paper. While some expressed palpable anger, using words like “abhorrent” and “vile”, others appealed to the cartoonist’s sense of empathy, and the poor judgment of the paper. Regardless of the approach, it’s clear the the public was upset by this comic, and rightfully so. The response from the newspaper was disappointing in its own right, consisting of an acknowledgement that the cartoon existed, and a publisher sharing personal story of losing a nephew to overdose. This story felt like the equivalent of saying or doing something outwardly racist and justifying it by saying, “it’s okay though, I totally have a black friend.” There was no apology, no acknowledgement of the mistake that had been made, nothing at all.
It’s no secret that public perception of people struggling with addiction is not the most sensitive one. These negative assumptions and ideas about addicts are often misguided and toxic; that addicts are people who choose to be addicted, simply don’t try hard enough, or even deserve what they get. We’ve all heard these negative perceptions before, and it might seem easy to just ignore. Standing up for addicts is far more stigmatized than speaking out against racism or homophobia. In the eyes of the public, addicts are apparently fair game.
To not say anything, to allow for hateful and ignorant things like this particular comic to be printed and to perpetuate misconceptions, is to accept the comic’s message and even to agree with the statements being made. It was a wonderful thing to see the outrage and calls for empathy that poured in to the newspaper in response, but editors had to make the decision to run it in the first place. More than one person would have looked at the comic and thought, “yeah that’s good” or, “yeah that’s funny,” before it went to print. Agreeing to print this comic trivializes and even supports the deaths of drug users—whether first-time users or long-term addicts—and further perpetuates a culture of victim blaming on those struggling with addiction. North Island Gazette, how will you make up for your ignorance?
Brendan is a horror-loving, left-leaning, feminist presently studying at Vancouver Island University in the Bachelor of Social Work Program. He has been a lover of all things arts and entertainment for as long as he can remember, with a particular fondness for horror films and other spooky media. He lives in Nanaimo with his partner Melissa, and their cat Adler.