Skip to content

‘Harm reduction works … then Fentanyl came’ — Community Action Team coordinator

New coordinator was part of initial harm reduction push in 1990s
Sue Moen is the new coordinator for the Campbell River Community Action Team. Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror

In the 1990s, B.C. was one of the first places in the world to start implementing harm reduction.

The province’s first needle exchange program began in 1989, and by the end of the decade the province was on its way to opening North America’s first legal supervised injection site in Vancouver.

Sue Moen was on the front lines back then, and in her new position as Community Action Team (CAT) Coordinator in Campbell River, she’s right back in the thick of it.

“I remember just the fight that it was,” she said. “Despite the thousands of people we continue to lose, I know harm reduction works. We saw it working. Then Fentanyl came, and that’s what changed.

“It’s not harm reduction principles, it’s not the people who use substances that have dramatically changed, but the substance itself.”

Moen was hired to the role as the CAT leadership team is looking at ways to shift their focus from governance to action.

“The role of the coordinator and very much my role is to support individuals, agencies, ministries, peers, people with lived experience, anybody who are involved in harm reduction and anything to do with substance use,” Moen said.

That basically means that she will work with anyone trying to lessen the effects of the substance use crisis. It means Moen’s job is to get the message across that “the substances in and of themselves are immoral. Most of the harm is caused because these particular substances are illegal.

“We would never consider stopping insulin for an insulin dependent person,” she said. “yet when the substance that people with substance use disorder require is deemed illegal we attach a moral judgment to that. And that is killing people.”

Moen’s experience extends beyond just being part of the early waves of harm reduction in B.C. Moen herself was an addict, but the fact that she had privilege allowed her to get the help she needed and reduce her dependency on drugs.

“I held a job or two. I started my own business. With the timing of that, the drug of choice

was almost socially acceptable in many many circles. I held on to my job because I had a place to live, because I still paid my bills, but I come from privilege.

“I do casual shifts at the overdose prevention site. And when I pull in the 11-hour shift, I literally have to tell folks ‘okay you guys I hit the ninth hour, I’m challenged right now,’” she said. “the person I was talking to looked at me. She said ‘Sue your guests are always on their ninth hour. Always.’”

The Community Action Team has put on an event every year during International Overdose Awareness Day. Last year, 47 Campbell Riverites lost their lives to unregulated drug use, the highest number since the crisis was declared in 2016. Moen said that while there are some members of the community who have no other place to use drugs than outside, “they are as deserving of our respect and human dignity as anybody.

“These people are somebody’s kids. Somebody’s relatives. Somebody’s lovers somebody’s friends,” she said. “the community sees the most marginalized, and unfortunately the most chaotic people who use substances and don’t remember that when they vilify them, when they attack them physically, emotionally, with words, they are increasing the stigma for all of those people who use substances in a house … we are endangering their lives because they don’t want to admit use they are likely to use alone. So we’re actually increasing the risk.”

Moen likened the stigma and misinformation problem to another crisis of the 1980s and 1990s: HIV and AIDS.

“That stigma that the misinformation the assumptions killed people as much as the disease did,” she said.

“We practice harm reduction all over the place. Seat belts are harm reduction and when a seat belt fails or an airbag fails, we recall all those cars and we fix it,” she said. “What we’ve been doing so far is still is failing, but it doesn’t mean you throw away seat belts or airbags. You fix them.”

For anyone interested in getting involved in the Community Action Team, they meet monthly. Email Moen at to get involved.

RELATED: Campbell River sees province’s fifth highest rate of unregulated drug deaths

North Island-Powell River MP wants federal plan on overdose crisis