john oliver talks harm reduction on last week tonight

Today I saw this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and felt compelled to share. His show is on HBO/Crave, but if you don’t have a subscription someone has posted the full clip on YouTube.

It’s not often that intelligent, thoughtful analysis of the drug poisoning crisis is presented in such an entertaining and funny way, so I was stoked. I also felt sad and a deep sense of regret in that I wish I’d seen this two years ago. Like with many moments in grief, duality is fiercely present and the sting of regret for what I wish I’d known is sharp.

Last Week Tonight was one of Mike’s favourite shows to watch and he would always get excited when the latest episode dropped. If this had aired two years ago, Mike and I likely would have watched it together and who knows, maybe things would be different. Maybe not. I wish I’d known more than I did at the time, but I can’t change the past. Sadly, it’s too late for Mike, but perhaps it’s not too late for someone else.

If you want a better understanding of the drug poisoning crisis in North America and the impact of fentanyl and harmful drug policies, this is a great place to start.

The stats and regulations are US specific, but the trends and the points about stigma and harmful policies are also true for Canada. One key difference is that in Canada, naloxone is now available for everyone. It’s something I wish I had known to keep in the house.

Misinformation about fentanyl

One of the things Oliver discusses is the misinformation around fentanyl. Fentanyl has poisoned the drug supply and is often disguised as other opioids. People who use drugs do not know what they are taking. I liken it to if my morning coffee, to which I’m addicted, could without my knowing be laced with cyanide. I wouldn’t have a clue. I wouldn’t stand a chance.

Mike’s toxicology report showed only fentanyl in his system. I believe he didn’t know he had purchased fentanyl. The drug supply had become more poisoned since he had been in recovery in addition to covid interrupting the drug supply chains. I believe he didn’t know what he was taking. And if you don’t know what you’re taking, how can there ever be a correct dose? How does anyone stand a chance?

Another aspect Oliver explains is the false belief that you can overdose from fentanyl just by touching it or being in its presence. This isn’t true, you need to ingest it or inject it to feel the effects.  After Mike died, I found the remaining fentanyl that he had on his person. It was smaller than a tiny pebble you might find in your shoe after a stroll at the beach. About the size of a sesame seed. I could hardly believe a fragment of such a minute thing could bring down my big, strong husband in a moment. This was painful to find. I reported it to the police non-emergency line and they came to collect it. Over the phone they warned me “don’t even touch it” and incorrectly told me it could cause serious harm if I got it on myself. Even the police who sadly see this every day were misinformed.

This misinformation is dangerous because it adds to the stigma around drug use and potentially could make someone question whether to help someone who has been poisoned. Breaking down misinformation like this is a good place to start to end the stigma.

No one has ever died in an overdose prevention site

No one has ever died in an overdose prevention site (called supervised consumption sites in Canada). This is very painful for me to elaborate on personally, so I’ll just say it again…

No one has ever died in a supervised consumption site.

Stigma runs deep – we need to meet people where they are

Here is a quote from the end of the piece in case you can’t watch the video right now or perhaps too lazy to watch a 17 min clip (I see you… as you then go to scroll Instagram for an hour… I see you because I am you):

“Our engrained stigmas around drugs and the people who use them run really deep. And if we actually want to minimize deaths and keep people safe, the facts point in a very clear direction: we need to meet people where they are, help them transition into safe drug use to stay alive, and remove barriers for those seeking addiction treatment. And what we absolutely need to stop doing is spreading misinformation and warehousing drug users in prisons. Or, to say it more succinctly: it is well past time to start paying attention to the man behind the curtain.”

I’m grateful John Oliver and his team put this together and will reach a large audience with this important messaging. I wish Mike was here to see it too.


Here is a link to the transcript of the episode (segment starts about a third down the page).

And if you want more information on the subject, this is a very informative and well-research book Overdose: Heartbreak And Hope in Canada’s Opiod Crisis by Benjamin Perrin.

Here is the Canadian government’s list of hotlines and help.

5 thoughts on “john oliver talks harm reduction on last week tonight

  1. Hi Miranda, I was introduced to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight by Miles last year and I’ve learnt so much unbelievable stuff since then. I really like him too. We’re a week behind but I’ll make sure we watch this episode tonight. There is so much we all don’t know until some of it collides with our lives. I’m thankful there are people like John Oliver and you getting information out there. I hope the people who need this message find their way to your blog. I’m so sorry you lost your Mike, my love xx

  2. Thanks for sharing Maz. For some reason the YouTube is blocked here, but could access the transcript.
    I also read the book Kip refers too – can’t remember all of the specifics, but at the time learnt a lot and it changed my perspective on a few things. I also recently read ‘Dopesick’ by Beth Macy and wow… I really didn’t know the extent of the problem, as well as how so many seemingly ‘easy’ measures (like testing & overdose prevention sites) just aren’t being taken.

    The stigma piece is just such a huge one, so great John Oliver is having this conversation to drive that change.

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