Friday, April 8, 2016

Joe Omundson

needle exchange

A couple of times recently I've helped volunteer at a needle exchange outreach program. Two of my friends who are involved invited me to join them. The goal is to build relationships with members of the drug using community and reduce the harm of their habits. They collect any dirty needles that people bring in, and they distribute 100 new needles per person, all kinds of necessary supplies for injecting, meth pipes, narcan, and other things like free condoms, food, coffee, information, and a hangout space. It takes place in this community space that is like a punk/anarchist/DIY kind of vibe.

On my first visit, about 55 people came in for supplies in a 3 hour period. I thought it was fascinating. Most of the other volunteers were past hard drug users and they were sooo kind, compassionate, and understanding. It was beautiful. They do this every Saturday, and on Fridays they bring a mobile version of the outreach on bikes to various homeless camps around the city. The idea is not to offer any judgment at all but to build trust with this community which is basically completely shunned from society, and disconnected from love and resources. It seems like it actually works, people seemed comfortable coming in and knew they would be welcome.  I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. One guy brought his dog and his dad(?) and hung out for a few hours, he was actually really funny. When he left he was like “bye guys, I’m going to go do some heroine!” and the volunteer was just like “all right man sounds like a good plan, see ya later!”. There was so much acceptance and love in that place. They were very kind to me and patiently answered my naive questions about drug experiences and how everything worked. It was like therapy for me just to hang out with them.

Anyway, I thought this was a really profound experience. For me it greatly humanized the drug using community. I wouldn't normally know what kind of person might be using heroine or meth. Some of the people who walked in looked like "typical" drug users, but others I never would have guessed.

I'm definitely swinging toward supporting the idea that all drugs should simply be legalized. I think much of the harm of these drugs is actually caused by the fact that they are illegal -- the risks involved in obtaining drugs, the unregulated production process and the harmful substances the drugs are often cut with, the risks of sharing needles, the paranoia of being caught by police or judged by society. I think addiction is not so much an inherent result of trying drugs, and has more to do with underlying psychological and genetic factors. For the same reasons that prohibition has not been able to curb the numbers of illegal drug users, legalization would not be likely to recruit large numbers of new addicts; but it would allow us to treat drug addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal one, ensure that users are protected from harmful additives, and make it easier to to access safe supplies. I think if we did that, we would be better able to address the problems associated with drug use.

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