Just about everybody knows someone who has struggled or is struggling with addiction — their own, a loved one’s, a co-worker’s, an acquaintance’s. Addiction may be part of the reality of many people’s lives, but here in Merritt, there are plenty of organizations intended to help those who are affected by drugs.

One of those organizations is the Phoenix Centre, a Kamloops-based addictions treatment centre that has an adolescent addictions outreach worker in Merritt three days a week.

Jim Laidlaw works with people under 25 who are affected by addiction.

His clients can range from children who are living with addict parents to teenagers caught using drugs at school to those who are working on recovery.

“It doesn’t have to be their own use; it could be by someone else’s. That covers quite a wide range of people. It could be parents of a young person using or it could be a young person who’s got parents who are using,” Laidlaw says of his client range.

His relationships with these clients range just as drastically.

“The relationship, in my particular job, can be one hour long or it can be one year or longer than that. It really is what the client wants, or what they find useful. They, at the very least, have one talk with me about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, the effects of it, and any kinds of changes they may be interested in making.”

He has been working with one client for seven of the eight years he’s been working in Merritt.

Laidlaw uses a client-centred approach to treatment, meaning counselling sessions focus on the substance use experience from the client’s point of view. Laidlaw says this kind of approach minimizes defensiveness, which can be a barrier to somebody opening up about their substance use and ultimately figuring out the bigger issue — what might prompt their drug use in the first place. Instead of forcing a treatment plan on somebody who may not be motivated to change, this approach focuses on figuring out what motivates a person to change and encouraging that motivation.

“We try to facilitate the environment for change, but we’re not the cause of it. When we make that kind of a leap, we tend to get a lot more productive change going on,” he says.

The approach views all drug use as occurring on a spectrum from abstinence to beneficial use to harmful use. Cannabis use to ease pain in multiple sclerosis patients is one example of a beneficial use. It’s when that use becomes increasingly risky and the harm outweighs the benefits that it becomes abuse.

In this view, the biggest motivator for change is what a client does want.

“It’s amazing what people can do if they’re pregnant or the doctor says it’s time [to quit]. It’s amazing what people can conquer,” he says.

For those young clients who are impacted by another person’s use, such as a parent’s, Laidlaw says his strategy is to help kids realize they don’t have control over someone else’s substance abuse and to help kids focus on what they can control.

“We talk about safety plans and about love being separate from addiction — those kinds of messages,” he says.

Other social agencies in town and the school district refer clients to Laidlaw.

His office is set up at the Ministry of Children and Family Development on Coutlee Avenue, but Laidlaw says he spends a considerable amount of time outside that office. Many of his meetings are in an informal place to facilitate a safe environment for private conversations.

He also works in Kamloops, Logan Lake and Chase.

Laidlaw’s job description is really that of two different but closely related jobs: counselling people and doing outreach work.

As part of his outreach work, Laidlaw also wants to dispel some myths around youth and substance use and share some tips for parents around the issue.


Confronting someone you’re worried about will help them. 

If you’re worried about your teenager using or experimenting with drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, an intervention might not be the best way to go.

“There’s a lot of research evidence that says actually confrontative approaches can escalate the use of drugs,” Laidlaw says. “Confrontative measures don’t work. They make people feel bad and when people feel bad, they use their substance. What does work is providing a safe relationship or safe environment to talk about stuff.”

Confrontation might make for good dramatic TV, but it won’t necessarily make a good start to kicking a bad habit.

Laidlaw says people have every right to discuss the negative impacts of drug use on their lives, but professionally, he doesn’t use confrontation because it tends to make people defensive and resistant.

“There’s no resistance if there’s no pushing,” he says. “That is what I find the high-risk youth seem to appreciate the most: when you listen as opposed to pushing wisdom into them without their permission.”

You can scare someone out of using drugs.

While scare tactics may be popular, research indicates they aren’t necessarily the most effective way to change a person’s behaviour, Laidlaw says.

Many of his clients can already see what will happen if they continue their use by way of family members or other adults in their lives who have lived that out in front of them.

He says teenagers who use drugs want to feel better about something in the short term.

Instead of focusing on long-term negative effects, Laidlaw says looking at what clients do want can help them make positive changes.

There are good and bad drugs.

Laidlaw says whether drugs are good or bad depends on many things, including — but not exclusive to — the drug’s inherent properties.

“Certainly, crystal meth and cocaine are so addictive that it’s very hard to find any circumstance where someone’s using them in an OK way or beneficially. We don’t seem to freak out a whole lot about our kids starting with a beer or two at 13, but we would sure freak out if they tried crystal meth. The issues around our perception of what is most harmful are things that make us start to judge drugs as good or bad.

“There are good and bad relationships with drugs,” Laidlaw says.

Those relationships fall somewhere on the beneficial-harmful continuum of drug use.

“What we can do is class drugs by how much harm they do in our community, in our society,” he says.

Laidlaw says defining harm in emotional, physical and health terms, as well as in terms of the tax dollars incurred in the healthcare, justice and social service systems can more accurately point to which drugs are especially problematic.

He says tobacco is clearly very harmful in those terms.

Some drugs are “gateway” drugs that cause a person to use harder drugs.

Where there’s a correlation, there’s not always causation.

“People think that cannabis is a gateway drug. There’s no real evidence of that,” Laidlaw says, in terms of cannabis use leading to other drug use.

Rather, it’s the presence of one drug around another that leads people to believe certain drugs cause other drug use.

“Really, risk factors contribute to both of those drugs being in a person’s life.”

The apparent links between using more than one drug are related to personal, social and environmental factors rather than the drug’s effect.

It’s safer for my kids and their friends to party in the basement than somewhere else.

Laidlaw says the host of a party can be held legally responsible for anything that happens at that party, even if they didn’t know about it or provide alcohol.

“Unfortunately, parents who do that are not only risking huge liabilities with other people’s kids, there are also many, many incidents where the presence of an adult didn’t stop kids from over-drinking or overdosing, ending up in the hospital, or drinking and driving,” he says. “The presence of an adult who’s permissive with any drug use doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on the safety of the kids.”

Instead, a strong anti-drug message in the home can be one way parents can help deter their youngsters from substance abuse, Laidlaw says.


  • Avoid reactionary measures, such as yelling, threatening and lecturing.
  • Help youth help themselves: avoid telling them what they “should” do.
  • Be honest, consistent, open and listen when talking about drugs.
  • Delay the first use of drugs as long as possible.
  • Deliver a strong anti-drug message at home against all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, and model behaviour accordingly.
  • Talk about drugs when they’re experimenting, not just when use becomes problematic.
  • Avoid expressing well-founded worries as anger; approach the topic neutrally, curiously and non-judgementally.
  • Get kids to be experts on what goes on in their bodies when they use.
  • Understand what they’re getting out of it.


Risk and protective factors come in three categories: individual characteristics of the person, family factors, and environmental factors.

The best protective factors form the foundation of basic stability: housing, food, clothing and safe people. However, these factors also carry risk.

“If you have those, they’re protective factors. If you’re missing any one of those, it’s a risk factor,” Laidlaw says.

Similarly, behaviour modelling and communication are protective factors when they’re done honestly, openly and consistently, but are risk factors if they’re dysfunctional.

Trauma is a big risk factor to turn youth to drugs to cope. “Trauma” refers to both the overwhelmingly negative experience itself and the lingering response to that experience.

Youth itself is a risk. The natural process of maturing can help some people deal with the root causes of their drug use more effectively.

“Unfortunately, the last part of your brain to grow is the part that controls impulses. That same part helps you predict consequences. Growing up is part of the formula for helping somebody survive,” Laidlaw says.

Motivation to use drugs can be a risk. If use stems from a long-lasting issue, such as dealing with a mental health issue or a sleep disorder, it’s more likely the substance use will be long-term.

Other activities can be protective factors. Laidlaw says if teens feel using drugs is the only thing to do, that might be what they do.


Still, not every young person who uses drugs is motivated to change. In these cases, Laidlaw says harm reduction is the immediate option.

“If they’re not ready and willing to change, then we talk about ways to reduce the harm that they’re doing to themselves or their family or the community.”

Laidlaw says harm reduction doesn’t mean condoning drug use.

“Harm reduction, instead of being the opposite of abstinence, can be the road to abstinence,” he says. “We’re neutral with use; we’re condoning healthier decision-making and moving in the direction of healthy.”

Harm reduction measures, which can include administering sterilized syringes or distributing pamphlets with information about disease prevention, acknowledges autonomy in personal decision-making. Laidlaw uses the comparison of people being free to choose to eat large quantities of unhealthy food and eventually incur costs in the healthcare system as a result. Harm reduction allows the same autonomy for people consuming other substances.

It’s another facet of that client-centred approach that encourages change from the inside out.

“It would be great if they quit right away,” Laidlaw says. “It’s not realistic.”