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Will Drug Use at Occupy Wall Street Become the Pretext for Eviction?

In Zuccotti Park, occupiers do their best to handle drug use on their own terms, but it may stretch beyond their resources and give police an excuse to intervene.

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It is here that people dealing with drug and alcohol problems can find help from a dedicated group of medics who treat people suffering from overdoses and detoxing from alcohol. Kostry estimates that medics treat about a dozen people for drug or alcohol-related problems every day. "We've had a few people who've been brought in after ODing on heroin," he says. "We usually treat them with Narcan, a short-term opiate blocker, and take them to a hospital, if necessary. There's ketamine and coke available here here, too—generally the addicts here prefer stuff that can be sniffed and easily concealed. We've also had people with alcohol poisoning who needed immediate detox. We are medics. We try to treat them on site, stabilize them, and get them the help they need. We heavily discourage them from using in the park. It's certainly not something we support."

A week ago last Monday night the NYPD made a surprise attempt to dismantle the medical tent, claiming that it constituted a “structure,” which is not permitted in the camp. Ed Mortimer, a street medic who specializes in drug and alcohol treatment, was asleep next to the tent at 11:30 pm when a NYPD lieutenant woke him, saying that they were going to take down the tent. Medics and occupiers formed a nonviolent human chain around the tent six people deep. Mortimer looked across the square, and there was Jessie Jackson, coming to join the protest. Jackson linked arms with the medics protecting the tent, saying, “I’m not visiting, I’m occupying.” Under the gaze of the media, the NYPD retreated without a word.

Days later, Mortimer, joined by Frank White, a volunteer medic with a background in mental health, sat down with  The Fix to talk frankly about drugs in Liberty Plaza. Mortimer has been living on the square for much of the occupation, after he answered a call for street medics to help the movement. Mortimer is a trained  street medic, one of many gnarly and stalwart veterans of the protest scene who form an underground collaborative of more or less medically savvy people who get their qualifications more from experience than from classrooms. White, a relative newcomer after four nights, is a mental health counselor from Connecticut who became the de facto point person for drugs and alcohol issues.

“We have a slice of society out here,” says Mortimer. “We don’t have a lot of people who have problems with drugs and alcohol"—but, then again, all are welcome to join the movement. “You’re not supposed to be drinking and drugging on the square,” he says. “When we see that, we try to convince people to leave, explaining that it hurts the movement. To be uncontrollable, that undermines the movement.” Drug using and dealing would also give the cops an excuse to search and arrest occupiers.

White adds that “most of the people I have to intervene with are fighting against a system that has been beating them down for their whole lives. So some of them have emotional problems, and some of them address those problems with drugs and alcohol.” Although the movement needs to maintain a sober face, it isn’t about judging those people for their histories or their habits. But people who use are generally asked to use outside the park. “And there are some people who come here who have severe mental health issues. They have the best of intentions, and they are in the same 99%," White says, carefully avoiding the terms "the homeless" or "street people" while speaking of them.

Medical resources are limited. During the day, volunteer doctors and nurses are available to write prescriptions. As medics, Mortimer and White do their best to head off emergencies or less serious problems with drugs and alcohol through strategic interventions and, more generally, through open discussion of the issue, so that people don’t feel they have to hide their use and only come to the medics when things go bad. They are committed to doing everything within their power to keep from having to institutionalize people who display mental-health problems.