Assignment 7

SF drug users form advocacy group

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

There is an unusual union that has formed in San Francisco. It's not really a labor group, but an advocacy organization to support drug users.

The bi-monthly union meeting is probably unlike any you've ever attended -- it's the San Francisco Drug Users' Union.

"People think it's a joke or that we just get together and get high or something like that, quite the opposite," member Isaac Jackson said.

Jackson says he is an active meth user and an MIT graduate who co-founded the union three years ago. The members are other drug users, former users and their supporters. They believe the war on drugs has failed miserably.

According to its mission statement, the union's goals are "to decriminalize drugs and drug use, to create a safe environment where people can use and enjoy drugs...and to promote a positive image of drug users."

"When we stigmatize drug users, we make it more difficult for them access to health care, we make it more difficult for them to exercise their human rights," Laura Thomas said.

Thomas is the state director of the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, the major funder of the Drug Users' Union, which is located in the Tenderloin.

"Our goal is to shift the response to drugs from a criminal justice response, to a public health response," Thomas said.

Tony Ribera is director of the International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership at the University of San Francisco and a former San Francisco police chief. He believes law enforcement is a necessary tool to crackdown on drugs.

"Otherwise for many, not all, but for many of the drug users, there's no incentive to get into treatment, to get into rehabilitation," Ribera said.

But that is not the focus of the Drug Users' Union.

"If they want to quit, we'll help them to quit, but if they are still going to use, were not here to say 'hey, no, you can't do that,'" peer counselor Gary West said.

West says members are not allowed to use at the union meetings, but it's OK if they come in loaded. But, West says, drugs don't keep the members from serious business.

One of their slogans is "Nothing about us, without us," meaning they are demanding a voice in drug policy decisions. One of their main missions is to get a supervised safe injection site for heroin users like one in Vancouver. And they are working with San Francisco General Hospital to develop a how-to manual to handle drug users who come in for medical care.

"I wonder how many of my fellow losers are dead because they didn't get the medical treatment they needed because they were shoved off in a corner, 'oh, we'll get to him later,'"

Jeannie Little shares the union's goals; she's with the Harm Reduction Therapy Center, a state-certified treatment program.

"We're unusual in that we do not ask people to get clean and sober as a condition of coming into treatment or as a goal of treatment," Little said. "We partner with drug users to figure out what their goals and help them achieve their goals at their own pace."

"If their perspective is that want to continue to use drugs and hurt themselves, which is what they're doing, I can't support that," Ribera said.

But Jackson says the movement is growing. He recently spoke before San Francisco's Human Rights Commission about the discrimination in housing, employment and education drug users face.

"Well, I don't think they are waiting on the word from me on whether they should use drugs or not," Jackson said.

Though there is a lot of buzz about San Francisco's union, it's not the first in the nation. There's one in New York and now Seattle may follow suit.

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drugs, tenderloin, assignment 7, carolyn tyler
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