Drugs have taken their place alongside the world’s worst villains

Our greatest enemy at this moment appears to be substances. It marks a change.

It used to be vile people, for instance, the petulant and frightened Russian President Vladimir Putin cosying up to the autocrat Xi Jinping in an unholy alliance bringing mass death to both of their countries.

But there have always been human villains. What takes me aback is the danger now being posed by unfamiliar substances like xylazine and, say, Candida auris, a drug-resistant fungus that can take you unawares and kill you.

Xylazine is just the latest drug to torment Canadians addicted to drugs. There have been so many. There will be many more, long after opium and misused legal painkillers, but at least you got high from those. (Thanks to this misuse, many patients in terrible physical pain can no longer get relief; they’re the collateral damage.)

But xylazine is a livestock sedative not intended for humans. Dealers use it to bulk up their fentanyl, a malevolent substance that has replaced older drugs.

Xylazine extends the hit but knocks you out for so long that you sleep through your fentanyl and wake up desperate for more fentanyl, having gained nothing from this newly applied appalling drug beyond several hours of unconsciousness which you could have easily obtained by smashing your head very hard against a wall.

I mean, you’d be better off.

Heroin and meth users develop terrible facial sores. But you may not have seen what xylazine does to your skin because most mainstream journalism won’t show you the photos. It digs graves in the skin, eating the inner flesh and leaving a scaly material called “eschar.” It can lead to amputation but addicts will then inject the drug into their stumps.

Worse, naloxone can reverse opioids like fentanyl but not sedatives like xylazine. So you’re alone, on the street, out cold, a limp human form open to rape, robbery, and murder. Worse, it’s a veterinary drug no one ever dreamed humans would use, so it’s not illegal.

As wedded as we are to harm reduction and to the varied and fevered advice of self-identified street saviours, there is no way to stop this kind of harm. Malevolent substances have hopped ahead of the human need to be high and the human responsibility to help.

Take this Candida auris which can cause dangerous and sometimes fatal infections when it enters the bloodstream.

It has become resistant to the common antibiotic once used to treat it and to many other antifungals. It often has few symptoms, and spreads in hospitals where it is resistant to some ammonia-based disinfectants. All medicine can do is be alert to outbreaks while Big Pharma finds some new antibiotics.

It is not clear to me that the field of new antibiotics is flowering at the level we need it to.

There are many other damaging new substances beyond the obvious. Paper receipts are coated with BPA, so you should wear gloves while doing your taxes. Don’t buy furniture made with flame retardants or particleboard wood with formaldehyde in the glue. Don’t microwave food in plastic containers.

These chemicals don’t belong in household goods. Your children should not be inhaling dust from flame retardant on the move. Remember Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt: “matter out of place.”

I did not know until recently that gas stoves leaked pollutants inside the house that raise the risk of asthma. Of course they did. Why would we have thought otherwise?

There are new variants of the COVID-19 virus coming our way. Mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, was painful, protracted and hellish for gay men, mostly, who endured it, with its terrible echoes of HIV in the human soul memory.

And who knew raccoon dogs might be the creature in whom the COVID virus hid at the Wuhan market, without animal or human malevolence, just bad substances.

I will make a case for TikTok being a substance. It damages the minds of those who overdose. We may think it gets you high like an opioid but it’s more like xylazine in that it ultimately provides habituation more than pleasure.

I understand that China’s government uses TikTok to do harm — it’s an information thief in ways we don’t yet understand — but for once I made the right choice. I am not on TikTok. Many are. It’s their xylazine.

But so was Twitter, my drug of choice that fractionated my attention span. Google and Facebook (now cosplaying as Meta) have largely killed off the journalism industry. And yet I still ingest these drugs, mutely, mindlessly. I self-degrade.

At this point, I begin to think there’s something in the water. We have become cruel, as jumpy and irate as an American student starved of Adderall prescribed virtually during the pandemic. We make snap judgments, we torment people for using a wrong word.

We are behaving so oddly. Daily in Toronto, I encounter screaming madness on transit or on the street, but now I wonder if the pandemic just set off mental processes that were already put in place by substances built into the world.


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