Canada’s drug crisis: A wicked public policy problem (Part 2)
The Image of God
To know how best to tackle the distressing drug crisis in Canada, we first need to have a sense of what justice requires and what (or who) man is. To do so, we need to go right back to Genesis 1: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion ….’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
The Image of God and Human Flourishing
The image of God has implications for how people take care of their bodies. At the same time, it points to the need to care for our drug-addicted neighbours. But we don’t stop at keeping drug addicts from dying. We ought to also consider the other harmful effects of drugs.
Even a comparatively mild and legal drug like cannabis can have negative influences on those who use it. Health Canada points to the short-term effects cannabis use has on the mind, including possible confusion, impaired cognitive ability, anxiety, or psychotic episodes such as paranoia or hallucinations. Long-term effects can include loss of memory, concentration, or IQ, with particular impact on youth and frequent users. In 2022, 40% of hospitalizations of 10- to 24-year-olds for substance use were related to cannabis.
Cannabis has all these potential side effects and is still legal in Canada. Effects of harder drugs include both physical and mental impacts on the body, such as risk of heart attack, violent behaviour, anxiety, paranoia, or hallucinations. Drug use can also lead to decreased performance at work or school, changes in behaviour, and financial issues. And of course, drug use can lead to addiction and potential overdose and death. Other criminal activity often arises alongside drug addiction as people seek a way to fund their addiction or resort to violence.
Drugs offered through government programs like ‘safe supply’ or ‘safe injection sites’ can include a variety of side effects as well. One commonly used drug known as hydromorphone or dilaudid has a similar range of possible side effects as other illegal drugs, although it is far less potent. Some suggest hydromorphone may even be the cause of a segment of overdose deaths in Canada.
The physical harms of drug use do not immediately necessitate government action. After all, the government cannot ban everything that is potentially harmful to people’s physical or mental health. That said, drug use is also not something that simply affects the user who makes an autonomous choice. Drug use does not happen in isolation, but deeply impacts families and communities.
The Image of God and Community
The importance of community is a key component of the image of God. The fact that we are made in the image of God means we were made to be in relationship. We bear the image of a relational God. The three Persons of the Trinity are in perfect relationship with each other, and God has created us to be in relationship with others and with Himself. Drug addicts, too, were created to be in relationship. Whether or not these relationships have been broken because of their own choices, addicts also crave relationship and need those around them to help them overcome addiction. The need for relationship is also seen in the increasing loneliness and isolation in our society.
This element of relationality tells us that, while the government may have a role in responding to the drug crisis (a question I’ll address in the next article), it cannot have the only role. Instead, as Charles Colson writes, “Without individual virtue, we cannot achieve a virtuous culture… Without a virtuous culture, we cannot hire enough police to keep order.” To be able to maintain a virtuous society, it is necessary to involve social institutions besides the state, such as families, churches, and community organizations. Government is not best placed to build relationships and should partner with community organizations who can provide treatment and recovery services to drug addicts. One academic review confirms “In practical terms, the overwhelming majority of factors that contribute to harm reduction, or the prevention and treatment of addiction, involve relationships and are social.” Being social, relational people is part of being created in the image of God. To recover from addiction, people need help from their families, communities and those around them, including Christian churches and organizations which can provide help to those in need.
When we talk about issues like drug use, we also note that there is hope for renewal, and each of these social institutions plays a role in that renewal. John Kilner writes, “The church will continue to call all people to renounce their sin and follow Christ, for renewal according to God’s image in Christ is the glorious fulfillment of what only began at creation. At the same time, the church can help show people the extent of God’s love by the way that Christians uphold the life and dignity of all – even the down and dejected, the needy and neglected, the ruined and rejected.” A related role of politicians, then, is to make room for (and potentially incentivize) the work of Christian groups and organizations in responding to the drug crisis.
The Image of God and Public Policy
As our governments seek to respond to the drug crisis, we can encourage them to recognize and acknowledge the image of God in all Canadians. There is currently no objective foundation for how governments view people, including those addicted to drugs. A faulty anthropology leads to misunderstanding the real issue at hand. For example, if governing officials see human beings as essentially good, only corrupted by their surroundings, they may see no point in pushing drug users take responsibility for their lives and change their behaviour. At the same time, we can see in government responses in trying to save lives that they still understand some concept of the dignity of the human person, even if the source of that dignity is unclear to them.
We should note, however, that acknowledging the image of God does not simply mean keeping people alive as much as possible. Governments now tend to focus myopically on reducing overdose deaths. Of course, overdose deaths are tragic, and we should seek to reduce those numbers. But we ought not stop there. Drug use in itself is harmful to image-bearers and those around them, even if a person does not die from it.
The Image of God and Human Depravity
Scripture tells us to speak up for the poor and vulnerable and to care for those in need. When we view our drug-addicted neighbours as created in the image of God, we have a foundation on which to address the drug crisis more effectively, without solely focusing on overdose deaths.
Of course, when we consider the image of God, we also need to go back to Genesis 3 recognizing that we are fallen and impacted by the effects of sin. We are morally responsible for our choices, but also inclined to sin. Although we are unable to do any good without the work of the Holy Spirit, we maintain moral responsibility for the wrong that we do. I will look at moral agency in the next article of this series.
 Genesis 1:26-27.
 “Fewer young people being hospitalized for substance use, but overall rates still higher than before the pandemic,” Canadian Institute for Health Information, Nov. 30, 2023.
 Hugh Welchel, “Relationships are Integral to the Mission of God’s People,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, April 27, 2015.
 Charles Colson, Justice That Restores (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 2001), 105.
 Colson, Justice That Restores, 88.
 John F. Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 330.
 See for example, Psalm 82:3-4, Proverbs 31:8-9, Proverbs 19:7, and Luke 6:31.
 See, for example, Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3 and 4.