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What If Drug Users Organized Like Unions?

A San Francisco coalition of drug users is out to change the way that people perceive them.

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“In a densely populated city like San Francisco with rapidly expanding tech business and high end housing, and gentrification of previously ‘less desirable’ areas, there are no neighborhoods that would welcome this type of facility.”

In any event, she continues, the city has been formally on board with the harm reduction philosophy since 2000. Among others initiatives, the Department of Public Health offers or funds one of the largest needle exchange programs in the country, numerous opiate replacement therapy programs, and aggressive overdose prevention efforts. Harm reduction isn’t the issue; cost-benefit is. An injection site, says Gleghorn, would not necessarily do a better job than those programs already in place, but would certainly be more expensive to administer — and, inevitably, to defend in court.

On this latter issue, both Isaac Jackson and Laura Thomas concede that the biggest challenge in setting up a site is the legal one. No matter how compelling the public health argument, federal law is unambiguous on this issue: the so-called “Crack House statutes” make it illegal for an owner or renter of a piece of property to knowingly allow or enable the use of narcotics on that property.

In response to this law, Thomas poses the hypothetical argument that the 1986 law was never intended to get in the way of addressing a public health issue, and therefore does not apply. But she admits the legal reasoning still needs to be honed further. Alternatively, if recent history serves as a guide, the city could simply declare a public health emergency and defy the higher statute, just as San Francisco’s Mayor Frank Jordan did in establishing needle exchange programs in 1993, contrary to California law. But not with this mayor.

As progress on the SIS campaign grinds slowly forward, the union itself continues to expand. With that expansion, come certain complications. Today the union has some 30 “hardcore members” (there are more names on the membership list, Jackson says, but not everyone shows up to the meetings —“drug users’ lives can be complicated”) and among many of these new members, Jackson concedes that “some don’t agree with the site as a goal.”

As a result, he says the union is broadening its mission.

Last spring, the union organized its first non-SIS related campaign. Under the management of new member, Brian Schullz, who recently earned his masters in social work from the University of California, the union put together a pamphlet that aims to instruct staff at local hospitals how to best interact with drug users.

But for some in the union, like Gary West, campaigns of any kind may be beside the point. The union’s community coordinator, it is West’s job to “work the street” and swell the ranks of the union. It’s a job that suits him, he says. Up until only a few months ago, West had been homeless for nearly a decade.  

“I don’t have a Ph.D. like all the others got,” he says. “But I’m living proof that not all people who use drugs are idiots.”

West says he joined the union in 2007 after moving to San Francisco from Michigan’s upper peninsula. In the once thriving iron town of Ishpeming, he recalls being unable to hold down a job and losing the support of many friends and family members — all, he insists, because he uses marijuana. In San Francisco, thanks to the union and thanks to the city’s laxer attitude about so-called soft drugs, he says he’s finally moved into a supportive housing unit. Though his position at the union pays him only a meager salary, it is the first full-time job he’s had in a long time.

“I grew up totally straightlaced, but I guess I had to become a drug user to become a success,” he jokes. “This is most stable I’ve been in at least eight years.”

When asked about the supervised injection site campaign — something meant to benefit heroin and injectable cocaine users, primarily — he counts himself a supporter, but lacks Jackson’s enthusiasm and single-minded determination. Jackson may have launched the union with a specific policy in mind, but West joined for a very different reason.

“I imagine this being something like the Teamsters,” he explains.

According to West, the Teamsters of Drug Users would pool their funds for collective health treatment and legal protection. He describes one member of the union, a 68-year-old woman and heroin addict, who was recently arrested for possession. If the union had the resources, he says, “this place could be there for her.”

But in the absence of financial support, West says that SFDUU’s most important function is social. The weekly meetings are more than opportunities to mull policy proposals and organize outreach efforts. They also provide something that so many disadvantaged users and addicts most sorely lack — a community.

“I see this union as just that — a union!” he says, looking around the office. “These people are all I’ve got.”