How Addiction Begins: Opioid Addiction in Punjabi-Canadian Communities

By Ravia Dhaliwal

This is part one of a three-part series of articles based on Ravia Dhaliwal’s Undergraduate Honours paper “Sikh Punjabi Masculinity and Barriers to Mental Health and Addiction Supports,” from the University of Alberta’s Women’s and Gender Studies and Political Science program.

This research was born out of personal experience. I had noticed that my family had been attending far too many funerals for young men who died by “heart conditions,” where we would later learn that they died because of an overdose.  

While doing my research, and talking to members of the Punjabi communities, I have realized this issue is not just something I have witnessed in my personal life, but it affects virtually every Punjabi person I have met.  Whenever I speak about it, someone usually comes forward with a deep personal connection to my thesis. While this may not be surprising, we all know on some level that addiction is an issue in our communities, but the extent to which it is talked about is terrifyingly low. 

For this research I relied on interviews with addiction service providers, and relevant news articles. 

Doday in Canadian Cities 

The transnational nature of Punjabi-Canadians is made apparent through how doday, an opiate also known as “poppy pod tea,” became an issue in Canadian cities and Punjab. In 2010, the BBC reported on Punjab’s drugs epidemic, the same year the Canadian news channels, including The Brampton Guardian and CTV News, reported on the emergence of doday in Surrey and Brampton. Doday were known to be sold at South Asian grocery stores, butchers, and other shops in most Canadian cities. From 2009 to 2010 many municipalities cracked down on opioid sales and several raids and seizures of doday, pheem, and other substances occured. 

Technically doday were illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, but they were thought to fall under a “legal grey area” for users (Mulholland 2010). This was because doday usually ran undetected in drug tests, as there were not enough opiates to be detected (Mulholland 2010). In July 2010, Justice Bruce Durno, of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice  concluded that while doday are not as harmful as opium, and are not in the same category as cocaine, “it is more harmful than marijuana or other ‘soft’ drugs”, including being highly addictive. 

The Aftermath of Irresponsible Drug Policies

When the RCMP and regional police forces across Canada cracked down on doday sales, the illegality of doday was affirmed, and doday vanished from the market. After this nationwide breakdown, Indian butchers and Punjabi stores stopped selling doday, (at least officially). The specialists I interviewed for my thesis explained that when doday were pulled off the streets, there was no education or treatment options given for users to deal with their opiate addiction. They emphasized that opiate addictions “cannot be quit without treatment, it’s not possible”. As a result of doday being seized from Indian stores,  users went from drinking doday tea in the morning to using harder variations of opiates to cope with withdrawal symptoms. According to my interviews, this also led to a number of older Punjabi immigrants who used doday moving back to Punjab to manage their addictions. Some went to their doctors to receive prescriptions for Tylenol 3 or 4, and others switched to illegal options like heroin. According to an interviewee, heroin addiction and overdose was not a “big issue [in the Punjabi community] before, but it became a bigger issue after the poppy pods were banned”. 

So, why were doday banned? Community members voiced concerns about the usage of doday to local politicians  including Surrey-Newton MLA Harry Bains, and Brampton City Councillor Vicky Dhillon, who brought to the attention of the RCMP. 

In asking interviewees about how this addiction came to be, they emphasized that this population is one of “risk-takers,” and sometimes these risks can benefit them – especially in business. This risk-taking behaviour leads this patient population to be more susceptible to taking drugs like doday in order to work longer hours. He has seen this most prevalent with taxi drivers, truck drivers, and other workers who are able to work longer hours and make more money to provide for their families. 

The legal crackdown on doday happened over ten years ago, and the lack of services available to help people deal with withdrawals seriously affected the community with the use of more dangerous substances. The police response to the sale of doday was the result of politicians reacting to an increased use in their communities. An understanding of the danger of taking doday off of shelves may have changed the approach taken by politicians and police. Inevitably, the response taken by officials was harmful to Punjabi communities. A more holistic look  at  the fallout from the criminalization of sellers of doday, without giving the lifesaving resources people who are addicted is needed to understand the far reaching effects of the opioid crisis. 

The seizing of doday caused several life-threatening changes for dependent people. While the argument can be made that opium is illegal and doday should not have been sold, the seizing of doday lead people who were chemically dependent on opioids to use more dangerous substances. This led to an increase of opioid related deaths in Punjabi communities. Communities cannot be held solely responsible for the fallout from the seizing of doday. The legal and police response must share the blame. The laws and regulations around opioid use have been historically grounded in racist, colonial, anti-Chinese, anti-Indigenous sentiments (Mytrunec 2019, Giffen et al. 1991, 87). A more indepth look on narcotics policy and marginalized communities is necessary to understand the full effects of the opioid crisis, even during governmental responses, like Alberta’s “Opioid response”(Alberta 2020). 

To contextualize, Alberta’s opioid response was not fully geared up until 2015, likely because of a change in government (Alberta 2020). Nevertheless, there were several deaths and health problems related to the seizure of doday from shops without providing any remedy for these men. An inquiry into the effects of seizing doday would help communities understand the direct and indirect impact of treating drugs this way. While the current opioid response has saved many lives, a more holistic, community-based response is needed to tackle the opioid crisis in the Punjabi communities. As many other sources have found, using a one size- fits all approach to addiction never works. A specific, Punjabi-centered approach to addiction is needed. To reveal what a culturally relevant approach to addiction for Punjabis looks like, we must investigate how addiction begins. What are the factors that make Punjabi men vulnerable to addiction? These factors are diverse, and deeply rooted in Punjabi masculinity, and will be unpacked in my next post: Why Punjabi Men Get Addicted: Hard Work, Sex, and Being a Man.

 1The identities of these interviewees are disguised to ensure I adhere with my agreement with the  University of Alberta’s Research Ethics Office.

References

Alberta. 2020. “Opioid reports.” https://www.alberta.ca/opioid-reports.aspx

Faulder, Liane. 2019. “Edmonton doctor opens opioid clinic geared to South Asian community”. Edmonton Journal. June 24, 2019. https://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/doctor-opens-75-st-clinic-for-opioid-users-in-south-asian-community/

Giffen, P.J., Shirley Endicott, and Sylvia Lamberta. 1991. Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada’s Drug Laws: a study in the Sociology of Law Ottawa. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse 

Mulholland, Angela. 2010. “Police, doctors warn of the growing use of ‘doda’ March 20, 2010. CTV News. https://www.ctvnews.ca/police-doctors-warn-of-the-growing-use-of-doda-1.493816

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Bsrandomramblings

a place to keep me sane. a place to document growth. Reflections of a west coast dweller, world traveler, and confused med student.

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