The San Francisco Drug Users Union — you read that right — sponsors an art exhibition and a day of protest
This Friday, 40 years ago, President Richard Nixon announced that drug abuse was “public enemy number one," kicking off the estimated $4 trillion global war on drugs. The policy of targeting drug users and suppliers has many detractors — including, most recently, the Global Commission on Drug Policy who termed the initiative “a failure” in a June report.
But one Bay Area group takes particular exception to the war: the San Francisco Drug Users Union.
The union will be making their feelings felt with a day-long set of civil actions, culminating in a mass demonstration on City Hall at noon tomorrow.
“We’re acknowledging the failure of this war and demanding our tax dollars be put into programs, not incarceration,” said Isaac Jackson, Senior Peer Organizer of the SFDUU.
The union, which was founded in February 2010, currently has three full-time employees and 55 members. Membership is free, with most of the financial support coming from grants from George Soros' Open Society Institute, MAC AIDS fund, Drug Policy Alliance, and other foundations.
Their goal isn’t to encourage drug as much as advocate for users’ participation in drug policy.
“Let’s be honest, 99% of people who go through AA go back to using,” said Mr. Jackson, who identifies himself as a user, declining to state of what exactly.
“What we’re doing is admitting that people are going to use. We’re giving them a voice to make decisions about policy’s being enacted on them, allowing them to live out in the open.”
Unions for drug users are not an “only in San Francisco” affair. Founded in February 2010, the SFDUU is one of a handful of organizations throughout North America — including New York City and Vancouver — and Europe that advocate not intervention of drug use, but empowerment and education of drug users. The groups were inspired by a Dutch group, Junkiebonden, which began in the early 1970s.
The union’s work includes initiatives for awareness of hepatitis C, needle exchange, drug purity testing, overdose prevention, and even safe rooms in which to inject drugs. Most programs focus on users of methamphetamines, crack cocaine, and heroin, although the union does not distinguish between which drugs members use and support. According to its mission statement all “drug users, former drug users and people who care about drug users” are free to become members.”
“Our goal is to support, not to victimize,” said Ms. Goldman, coordinator for the SFDUU.
But that doesn’t mean the union is exactly orthodox. One thing they don’t do is explore ways for its members to quit drugs. “We support any member in their goals,” said Gary West, one of the union’s peer organizers. “However, we do not have active services for intervention.”
Mr. West spoke to The Bay Citizen at the bi-weekly Planning Committee meeting at SFDUU headquarters, a small storefront bounded by a transsexual nightclub, thrift store, and auto repair shop on a tattered block of San Francisco's Tenderloin District. The union, which shares the office space with the Harm Reduction Therapy Center, is a whirl of ringing phones and beeping fax machines, much like a doctor's office but with lower lights and a decidedly relaxed vibe. “If a member is really looking for help,” continued Mr. West. “We refer them to other programs that can better serve them in this area.”
Walden House/Haight Ashbury Free Clinic is one of those services. “We actually support everything they are doing,” says Walden House CEO, Vitka Eisen. “The key here is in providing access to a range of supports. This is only improved when you’re not being judgmental on what particular life decisions people make.”
So far, SFDUU's initiatives have been well received. Last month, the group began working with San Francisco General Hospital to institute training programs to help hospital staff better understand and care for drug-using patients.
“If someone comes into the ER who is speed psychotic and really freaking out,” said Ms. Goldman, “there are ways staff can better deal with them, to help them. That’s what we’re implementing — education.”
The Friday demonstration at City Hall will feature music, a large puppet show, and community speaking. Later on, they will be hosting an art exhibit of drug-war-related art from local artists at the union’s Tenderloin headquarters.
“Light refreshments will be provided,” said Mr. West, with a smile.
By James Nestor
June 16, 2011