It is hard to think of any member of our society who has less cachet than one that uses heroin. It just isn’t a good look. At best users are thought of as worthless, and at worst they are considered dangerous. If they are not nodding out in a park bench or living in squalor, then they are preparing to crawl through our bedroom windows as we sleep, looking to steal our Philips flat screen that they can sell for their next fix.
Yet there are many people out there who use heroin that have no desire to quit, and even look at heroin as something that has been a positive for them, something that has nurtured them through tough times, and has helped them survive, and even thrive in this world. Those people are working to change the way the world thinks about those that use heavy drugs.
The harm reduction model has been gaining a lot of traction in recent years, and one of the offshoots has that has been the rise of needle exchanges, a place where users can get clean needles. They are usually run with government money. There are some organizations out there though, that pass on the government handouts and do thing their way.
One of them is the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, located in Seattle, Washington, and run by Shilo Murphy, who once said that “Heroin saved my life.” The PHRA, does not accept government money, so they do things a bit differently. Most needle exchanges require that to get a clean needle, you need to bring in a used one in exchange. Hence the name. The PHRA will give you 300 needles at once, if you feel up to it. They also hand out glass stems so your lips don’t get blistered when you smoke from crack pipes, and hand out Meth pipes, often while wearing tee shirts that say “Meth Pipes, Because Crack Pipes are so five years ago”.
They make a very strong distinction between stable drugs users and chaotic ones. While they are more than willing to help you quit using drugs, they also feel it is important to help the chaotic drug user become stable.
Murphy clues us in as to how we can tell the difference. “The user is going to tell us if they are chaotic. People know when they are chaotic users. Drugs are negatively affecting them and the life they want to lead. What we try to do is to help people become stable drug users.”
And yeah, Shilo says drugs saved his life. He also says he wants to help people be good drug users. “Drugs saved my life and changed my life in a positive way. As a drug user I want to make sure that my brothers and sisters are taken care of, are not dying, and are being loved and respected by others and also by themselves. Where I work we love you just the way you are. We want you to be the best drug damn drug user you can be. You can have all of your goals fulfilled as a drug user. You can have relationships, have good jobs, make money, have friends, you can have anything you want in life and still be a drug user.”
The Drug Users Union, which is one of the coolest names for anything ever, is also known as the Urban Survivors Union, and has chapters in San Francisco, Seattle, and Greensboro North Carolina. Shilo Murphy was one of the founders of the union.
He says. “People that don’t use drugs are always trying to make policies that help us, but they are awful at it. The main problem is that are always trying to save us. We don’t want to be saved. Not only that but we don’t need to be saved. What we want is to be in charge of our own lives, We as drug users are joining together and organizing to do things that make our lives better and attempting to stop laws that discriminate against drug users.”
Robert Arthur is the author of You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos which is published by the ridiculously awesome Feral House. He says if it was not for all the nasty additives involved with black-market heroin, the long-term health of heavy users would be much better than alcoholics. He also says that opiate addicts can function at relatively high levels, unlike alcoholics who are in a constant danger to themselves, because of things like drunk driving. He also says that if heroin were legal, the risk of overdose would likely be similar to alcohol. If heroin were legal users would know exactly how much they are taking, and would have easy access to Narcan.
He told me that “Criminalization is exactly what has made opiates so deadly. This concept is complex and cannot be simply explained in two or three sentences so it has a difficult time competing with “heroin kills.” The unhealthiest drug is the cigarette. There have been multiple comparative studies on cigarettes and their costs to society. These studies don’t get cited often because what they have found is cigarette users save society money. They die younger due to fast killers like lung cancer, unlike super-healthy people who need to have their ailments supported for decades.”
But aren’t so-called “hard drugs” bad? Arthur says “The concept of “hard” drugs is silly. Caffeine can be just as powerful as methamphetamine as military studies in World War II demonstrated. Caffeine can get you to a hallucinatory point and easily kill you. However, caffeine is not illegal so almost no one does pure caffeine, much less injects it. The cultural norms surrounding its moderate use have not been destroyed by prohibition. No one wants to get “hardcore” with the stuff 10-year olds get fucked up on at birthday parties.”
Shane Levene is a poet and a writer, best known for Memoires of a Herionhead, who has shot up over 60,000 times in his estimation. He told me of why he started to use, and why he still does. “Without beginning to use heroin I would never have survived. Life had become too irritating and my skin was down to the raw. Heroin numbed the pain enough to make it bearable, just. But, contrary to what many say, heroin is not this drug that numbs you beyond all feeling. That’s bullshit. People still feel and hurt and suffer and cry on heroin but the pain is subdued enough to make it bearable, to allow one to persevere even while carrying the burden of their trauma. So heroin, though the effects of it will eventually be a factor in my death, allowed me to live through years I’d never have survived without it. I accept that. It still seems like a good deal. It would have been even better had I not had to make such a deal but that’s a useless exercise to get into as what has happened stays happened. Under the exact same circumstances, knowing all I know today, I’d still make the same decision.”
Robert Arthur says the whole heroin thing is really not that much of a big deal anyway. “Our society has a certain percentage of people with addictive personalities. Addiction levels have been stable for decades. Popular drugs of abuse wax and wane but the overall addiction levels stay the same. Whenever one drug becomes more popular the media and politicians shriek about the next “epidemic.” The legal status of drugs has not been shown to affect addiction levels. Stress has. For example, in war zones and impoverished areas addiction levels go up. If politicians really cared about the problems that they have caused with prohibition they would invest in mental health support for addicts.”
If you have been paying attention you probably have a pretty good idea by now that a lot of these guys have a bit of an iconoclastic bent to them. One guy that does for sure is Shane Levene who said “I don’t really give a fuck about what society thinks or knows. Society reflects the views of all the people and philosophies I am opposed to. Society, if viewed as an organism, would be just about the most stupid, easily manipulated and blinkered piece of crap alive. So no, I never contemplate quitting heroin in the way that society and rehabs and drug groups would ever accept. I use heroin and I will use it when and how I choose. That doesn’t mean I may never stop but it does mean I will never vow to quit and stay quit. This philosophy of total and absolute abstinence, of punishment and retribution for those who ‘fuck up’ is more damaging and unhealthy than anything. It immediately creates temptation in people’s lives, resides like a permanent reminder inside their heads and debases and humiliates then. It also instantly pits you against the helpers and doctors, those very people who are supposed to have your best interests at heart. What exists at the moment is an authoritarian system of care based upon the threat of retribution.”
But he has to occasionally think about quitting though right? Not really. He says “ I have periods where I do not use but I only ever go into that saying “I’m having a break” and I never attach any kind of time to that. It could be one day or one month, a year or maybe, if I feel it and it comes naturally, forever. But if ever I feel like using in those times I will. I’ll use and then not use again tomorrow. I’ll not beat myself up over it, nor feel guilty, nor damn myself as a ‘fuck up’”
But let’s get back to where we started. These guys are nothing but wastrels, right? Poor pathetic addicts and such?
Arthur says no. “The vast majority of hard drug users are not addicts. They get high, have a good time, and go to work on Monday. Even amongst addicts, many are not the train wrecks that are portrayed in the news and TV shows. You getting pissed at me because I do a line of coke because of what you saw some coke head do on the news is as rational as you getting pissed at me for drinking a beer because some drunk asshole drove through a crowd of people.
This story was originally going to be published by Cracked, but they felt it was a tad too controversial. Speaking of that, you buy my book that I wrote with the Cannibal Cop here.