Why drug users are uniting in San Francisco

Flickr photo by Eric Steuer. http://www.flickr.com/photos/notthe1s/5615069124/

Thirty-five people were arrested last night in San Francisco, after a gathering to protest the shooting death of a Muni fare evader turned violent. The demonstration is the latest example of the city’s long history of group organizing – from back in the days of Harry Bridges and the 1934 General Strike to recent protests over taxi medallions.

In the same unionizing tradition, a new group has come together in the Tenderloin District – but their M.O. is a little different. What binds the members isn’t a job, but an act: they all consume illegal drugs. The year-old group calls itself the San Francisco Drug Users’ Union, and they’re organizing like-minded people to give them control over the policies that affect them day in and day out. KALW’s Joaquin Palomino reports.

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GARY WEST: I think we’ll take a swing through the Tenderloin and then we’ll head up towards General Hospital … nothing special planned, just wherever the people who are considered the big drug users would congregate. You know, places I normally go.

JOAQUIN PALOMINO: I’m walking down Taylor Street with Gary West, a peer organizer for the San Francisco Drug Users’ Union. The name pretty much says it all. West says he’s smoked, ingested, or shot up every drug I can imagine, and like his fellow union members, he wants to change the way drug users are perceived and treated. So as we walk across the city, he’s posting union flyers.

WEST: Actually my day-to-day life has been pretty much this. Walking around and putting up the fliers, and scrounging up food and a place to sleep pretty much takes all of your time.

West was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For the last two years, he’s been living in San Francisco – homeless and without any stable income. Even though an outside observer could think drugs have something to do with his current situation, West says the Drug Users’ Union is actually grounding him.

WEST: I found a niche, I found a home. The union is my social life.

The San Francisco Drug Users’ Union was founded in 2010. Meetings take place twice a month, in an inconspicuous office on Turk Street. Some days, only a handful of people show up. Others, they have a packed house of 30 or more. There’s always pizza, and a lively conversation about drug policy and union goals.

ALEXANDRA GOLDMAN: Since we’ve been here, every meeting that we’ve had is overflowing with people.

Alexandra Goldman, is coordinator for the Drug Users’ Union.

GOLDMAN: People want this to happen, they want to make it work, they are tired of being told what to do.

WEST: Ideas and things that I had and that I wanted to do I was instantly ostracized out of, simply because I smoked a joint.

GOLDMAN: They are tired of being told that their voice doesn’t matter.

ISAAC JACKSON: I felt like I was a failure in some ways.

Isaac Jackson, is a senior peer organizer.

JACKSON: Friends, when they find out about you, they’ll drop you from their social list...

WEST: My family frowns on this totally, and don’t believe that I’ll ever be anything more than a user. 

That’s the focus of the union’s first campaign: stigmatization. The Drug Users’ Union is working with San Francisco General’s emergency room – a place many members end up at some point, and according to Goldman, are frequently mistreated.

GOLDMAN: One thing that we’ve got reported from a lot of people is that they feel like they have to lie to their medical providers to get the service that they want, that if they tell them that they use or how often they use, that the conversation is no longer about their mental health, but it’s about how often they’re using and how they should stop.

Goldman and Jackson have discussed their concerns with San Francisco’s department of public health and San Francisco General’s head of nursing, and General is now creating a training program for nurses and doctors to specifically deal with drug user issues.

GOLDMAN: Some people use stimulants because they don’t feel like they have enough energy.

JACKSON: A lot of people are drug users because they are dual or triple diagnosed with different emotional and mental differences from mainstream society

GOLDMAN: Some people use opiates because their life is really painful and they’re trying to escape from some serious trauma.

JACKSON: So in cases like that, once drug use is a symptom of your condition, why would you criminalize someone for their mental health? That seems to be really cruel and unjust.

That’s another primary purpose of the Users’ Union: to decriminalize the practice.

GOLDMAN: Well what have we done with the prisons over the past 40 years with the war on drugs? What have we done to people who have felony convictions who leave prison and can’t do almost anything?

WEST: Over the years I have been insulted, I have been denied opportunities, and not because they’ve had anything concrete to go by. They’re just like, “Psh, he’s a doper, screw him.”

JACKSON: A lot of people have been to jail, they have been arrested, and they come out like, “So what?” And so it gets to a point where they go, “What can they do to me? They can arrest me. Haha, they’ve already done that.”

WEST: Basically like any other punishment you are only going to get spanked so many times before you just get immune to the swat.

In California, the way we handle drug-related crimes is changing. San Francisco started a drug court program in 1995 offering non-violent drug offenders the option of entering a one-year rehabilitation program in place of jail time. If they complete the program, the original charges are dismissed. In its first 13 years the court processed 3,400 people, saving the city an estimated $48 million, according to superior court documents. Those also show graduates of the program were 24% less likely to be rearrested.

Today, more than 200 drug courts hear cases in the state, with San Francisco handling the most.

Union coordinator Alexandra Goldman believes drug courts are a start. But their premise still rests on the idea that drug users need to be treated. So she believes that instead of changing the ways we punish users, society needs to support people who choose to, or can’t help but, use opiates or stimulants … in part, because she considers it the most humane public safety alternative.

GOLDMAN: A lot of the health risks associated with using heroin are I think related to our prohibition drug laws. All of the HIV and Hep C risks are related to sharing needles, and I think you would see a lot less overdoses if we knew the quality and the potency of heroin that people were using.

Again, organizer Isaac Jackson.

JACKSON: I’m just another drug user, loser, or whatever.

PALOMINO: As an end goal do you want to quit or do you think you have a healthy relationship?

JACKSON: I don’t think about quitting that way, I think that when I’m done I’ll be done, and if the day I’m done is the day after I die, then so be it.

The San Francisco Drug Users’ Union is one of several in North America – the most notable being Vancouver’s VANDU, which was instrumental in creating North America’s first safe injection site – a place where heroin users can cleanly and legally shoot up. San Francisco’s union is small in size, with a budget to match, and a rhetoric that may seem out of reach to many. But as organizer West says, its mere existence provides a chance to create change.

WEST: All through history there are examples of people who have used drugs and wound up doing great things. Just because I smoke dope, or do a line, or smoke crack once a month does not mean that I cannot do the same things.

In San Francisco, I’m Joaquin Palomino, for Crosscurrents.

How do you think drug use should be treated? And what’s your take on the Drug Users’ Union? You can let us know by calling 415-264-7106 – we might feature you on the air.