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Drug users' union in San Francisco part of growing movement

Some members are clean, but most are not. They have joined together to work for decriminalization and battle disease, injury and death among users.

March 11, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Lydia Blumberg said she felt a weight lift the minute she walked into her first union meeting of the San Francisco Drug Users Union.
Lydia Blumberg said she felt a weight lift the minute she walked into her… (David Elliott Lewis, unknown )

Reporting from San Francisco — Heroin shooters, speed users, pot smokers and even some men and women who now are drug-free convene regularly in this city's gritty Tenderloin district — not for treatment, but to discuss public health policy and share their experiences free from shame or blame.

On this particular evening, the dozen or so in attendance had some pressing questions, including how those heading to a users' conference in Oregon this fall would obtain their methadone or safely procure other drugs to use in a supervised injection room.

"We have to figure that out," said Isaac Jackson, the group's senior organizer. The 56-year-old, who holds a doctorate in media arts and sciences from MIT, turned to speed in his mid-30s. "Nobody should [skip] this conference because they're afraid they're not going to get their dose."

This is the San Francisco Drug Users Union, one of a few such groups in the U.S. and part of a growing worldwide movement of thousands who, according to the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, are demanding a voice "in decision-making processes that affect our lives."

In the coming months, members of the San Francisco group plan to testify before a city panel on housing discrimination; co-host the first conference in the U.S. by and for drug users; and hold a design contest for a safe-injection site similar to one in Vancouver, Canada, where public health workers provide sterile needles and intervene in cases of overdose. They also have crafted a manual for medical personnel, to be released later this month, in hopes that drug users will get better emergency care.

The group's ultimate goal is decriminalization, an unlikely prospect but one increasingly debated by policy analysts who contend that the four-decade "war on drugs" has exacerbated social ills.

Linked to the harm-reduction movement — a philosophy that aims to reduce disease, injury and death among drug users without passing judgment or demanding abstinence — the union mostly hopes to put a face on those whom, Jackson said, "most people despise."

"People say, 'You're a drug user, you brought this on yourself,' " Jackson said. "Do people say that when you're 300 pounds with heart problems from eating McDonald's every day?"

Barbara Garcia, director of San Francisco's Department of Public Health, opposes the injection site for now but said she welcomes the union's organized advocacy. "We may not be able to always give them what they want," Garcia said, "but we're here to listen."

The union — with about five dozen members who attend meetings — eschews words like "addict" and "abuser." It neither encourages nor discourages use. At the recent meeting, one man who took a long bathroom break emerged to alternate between dozing on the couch and scratching himself, signs of an opiate high.

Jackson said that injecting is not condoned at either the biweekly meetings or in individual workshops, but "we know who our members are." A biohazard box is available in the bathroom for dirty syringes. The door latch is flimsy by design so it can be opened if someone hits the floor.

The rules are simple: No dealing at meetings. You can be high, but don't be disruptive.

San Francisco police haven't interfered with the union's activities, focusing drug enforcement on dealing and related street crimes. Reflecting that ethos, San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon recently said that he believes drug use "is a health problem, not a crime problem, and should be dealt with accordingly."

The leaseholder on the cozy office space members call their "community living room" is the Harm Reduction Therapy Center, which also provides the union with financial support. The rug is faded, the couch comfortable and the walls covered with straight-talking pamphlets about drugs, disease and overdose. Anyone who seeks treatment can easily find it.

The harm reduction philosophy has deep roots in this city, whose public health department in 2000 was the first in the nation to adopt the approach. The city funds an overdose prevention education group that prescribes antidotes and provides training on administering them to opiate users. San Francisco General Hospital has established a wound-care clinic for injection drug users.

Half an hour before a recent meeting, the center's security gate creaked open and Gary West, who became a paid organizer after proving himself a reliable and enthusiastic union member, welcomed others as the blues wafted from a small boom box. There is an easy vibe of shared affinity.

Skyler Foster, 53, has been a regular since he heard about the union two years ago while at a clinic that treats and educates drug users with Hepatitis C.

A gaunt man with graying hair, Foster weighed in on the group's medical manual and asked about the upcoming design contest for the injection site.

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