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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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Volunteers include members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who do outreach and distribute AA literature. Mortimer has also coordinated unofficial AA meetings, which are “just like any other AA meeting, the only difference is that they’re fluid. If we need to have a Big Book meeting, we’ll have a Big Book meeting. If we need steps, we’ll have a [twelve] steps meeting.” He hopes to make the meetings “official” by proposing them at the General Assembly and getting them on the schedule on the new giant blackboard that has recently appeared in front of the media station at the top of the park.

Patients dealing with “severe inebriation,” as Mortimer puts it, are not simply expelled from the square but are instead transported to the medical tent, where volunteers take care of them and try to explain how drug and alcohol use at the park hurts the movement. So far, says Mortimer, he has not come across anyone whose life was in imminent danger due to drug or alcohol use, though other medics say that several people have been rushed to the hospital. Early in the occupation, there were widespread media reports that there had been a drug “overdose” in Zuccotti Park, a term that immediately brings heroin to mind. In truth, the person had been “Robotripping”—drinking cough syrup—and had come to a medic who was not trained in responding to drug use and who introduced the term “overdose” into the rumor mill around the park—and the  New York Post. Mortimer assures me that the Robotripping patient “was never in danger of dying" and was taken by ambulance to a local emergency room. 

Though the police attempted to dismantle the medical tent on Monday as a way of undermining the protesters’ staying power, Mortimer says that most of the officers stationed around the square understand and respect his role as a street medic. “Street medics exist because the poor don’t have access to medical care,” he says, explaining that his trainer in street medicine was one of the first people to set up a medical tent when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. “As street medics, we would like to see free medical care for everyone, without a corporation standing in between patients and their medicines.” 

For most of the volunteers who staff the facility, becoming a street medic is itself a nonviolent protest against a medical system that often ignores those without insurance or private resources. Street medicine came into being at and after the “battle of Seattle” against the WTO talks in 1999, when activists were teargassed by the Seattle Police Department and the National Guard. After that event, protest organizers realized that they needed to bring their own medical care with them to the protest, so they started short but intensive training sessions to become activist medics. Partly because they only have limited (varying) degrees of access to conventional resources like prescription drugs—and partly because of their own values—street medics often rely on herbal and traditional medicines. They know how to flush out eyes after a teargassing or pepper-spraying. They know how to bind wounds and treat contusions in the field. At Occupy Wall Street, they serve an important comfort function as well as medical care: they provide herbal teas, aspirin, band-aids, blankets and hand-sanitizers. They help the “comfort” team keep participants warm and safe as possible.

Different medics see—or tell reporters—OWS's drug problem differently. Kostry's account of drug dealers selling a wide variety of substances as well as an incidence of drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning differs from the markedly more sober scene described by Mortimer and White, who failed to mention dealers or overdoses. Messages left for all three sources before press time were not returned, but the presence of drugs at the occupation is one that will certainly remain a hot-button issue in the days to come, one that  The Fix will follow closely. Requests to the NYPD for an interview to get its reports of drug use and drug dealing, including arrests made, if any, have yet to be answered.