Raffi Balian, a fierce advocate for harm reduction and the rights of drug users, died on Feb. 16 in Vancouver, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. He was 60 years old.
Balian was attending a national meeting about supervised drug consumption services at the time. He died from an “accidental overdose,” according to a release from the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, but the B.C. Coroners Service said a definite cause of death has not yet been determined.
Friends say he is survived by two sons.
Balian’s personal life was interwoven with “his commitment to substance users and changing policy and creating a better world,” according to Julia Barnett, a friend and colleague.
“Raffi was in the trenches of trying to build compassion for those who used while at the same time demanding harm reduction service supports and strategies to basically save the lives of users,” she said.
Balian, who was a teacher, was first introduced to drugs when he noticed his students in Kingston were injecting steroids, he told the Star during an interview last month. He contacted a friend at the Keep Six! Needle Exchange Program to obtain clean needles and began helping out with the program.
When a job opened up, he took it. After about six months, Balian became coordinator of the program.
Despite his commitment to helping drug users, Balian had his own demons and began using drugs himself. He used “almost every drug there is” for the last 23 years of his life, with opioids as his “drug of choice,” Balian said. As a result, he lost touch with family members and watched his marriage disintegrate.
“There was a personal price to pay but on the other hand I became intimately aware of the issues around drug use and the challenges people faced,” Balian told the Star in an interview last month.
While in Kingston, Barnett said he also helped with the development of the provincial strategy for PASAN, a community-based organization “providing HIV/AIDS and HCV prevention, education and support services to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families,” according to their website.
He moved to Toronto in the mid 90s, according to Walter Cavalieri, Balian’s friend and a member of the Canadian Harm Reduction Network. Balian worked on a number of initiatives, with different agencies before being hired by the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in 1998. He was the first staff member hired for the COUNTERfit Harm Reduction program, a project offering outreach and education services to drug users in the Riverdale area. He was later named the program’s coordinator.
Using his intimate knowledge of drug use and the challenges users face, Balian said he was able to “develop a program that responded to these issues.” The release on Balian’s death credited him with creating a program that was “locally and internationally recognized” and “acclaimed by researchers, academics, colleagues and the vast community of people who use drugs.”
Balian was well-respected and trusted in the community, Cavalieri said, because he “viewed every person who walked into COUNTERfit to pick up needles or supplies as a potential staff member.”
“All of them were seen as being capable, accomplished, and despite their use of drugs, they were potential staff members,” Cavalieri said. “That gave him a lot of respect. I think the things that people who are severely marginalized or stigmatized want most are respect and non-judgmental relationships. Certainly COUNTERfit exemplified that.”
Balian even wrote a book with Cheryl White about strategies for recruiting, supervising, and retaining staff members who use drugs, as well as how to ensure both employees who use drugs and those who don’t, are treated fairly. The book, titled Harm Reduction at Work: A guide for organizations employing people who use drugs, was part of the Harm Reduction Field Guide Series produced by the Open Society Public Health Program.
Cavalieri said the book was “translated into numerous languages” and “used in many countries, not just North America.”
Recently, Balian fought tirelessly for supervised injection sites, where users can inject illegal drugs under medical supervision. He credited his job and safe places to inject with turning his own life around. Because of these things he said he was able to maintain a steady income, have money in the bank, keep a credit card for the past three or four years, and repair severed relationships with relatives. He also cut down his drug use from every day to once every month or so.
In January, just over a month before Balian’s death, the province approved the funding of three injection sites in Toronto, with one set to open at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre.
“I have never known anyone whose death has moved me so profoundly because he was so key to the development of what harm reduction is in Canada and in the world,” Cavalieri said.
A celebration of Balian’s life will be held on Saturday afternoon from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.
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