I don’t have AIDS. I don’t have Hepatitis C. I have both of my arms. I had never been in a prison until last month. Sitting across from my friend Oshan at the federal penitentiary in Englewood, Colorado on Saturday, October 26, I couldn’t help but think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Last month I attended the Drug Policy Alliance’s biennial International Drug Policy Reform conference in Denver, a city that holds intense memories of my years as a junkie. It was in Denver that I first injected heroin in 1998 at the age of 21.
As I walked Denver’s 16th Street Mall, flanked by fellow reformers in our Victory March on Thursday, October 24, I wondered whatever happened to the girl I met there late one summer night in 2000. She was a tall, pretty girl in a Catholic schoolgirl’s miniskirt hanging with several other street kids, much like many of the young girls I saw hanging out with their friends on the mall last weekend. In one of my photo albums I still have a picture of her being taken away in an ambulance.
Fortunately for her, for me, and for many other drug users affected by the drug war, there is a strong, compassionate movement to reduce the harms of drug use in the Denver area. While I was moonlighting as a business student at the University of Colorado in 1999, Boulder’s health department’s syringe exchange workers Monique and Rodney lured me and my girlfriend-at-the-time to a harm reduction training program with a $100 gift certificate to the grocery store. At the three-night course they taught us how to inject safely, how to avoid HIV and hepatitis infections, how to support other drug addicts, and many other important elements of harm reduction. In addition, they deputized us as needle exchange volunteers and provided us with IDs that gave us the ability to carry syringes and other paraphernalia in Boulder County without the threat of arrest by the police. I still have that ID in a shoebox as a reminder of where I’ve come from in my life.
The course also taught us what to do in an overdose situation. That night on the 16th Street Mall, when I asked the pretty street girl to come get high with me, I was equipped to handle what would unfold. Shortly after we both injected our dope, she got out of the car to urinate in the parking lot. Moments later, I saw she had keeled over on the ground unconscious and wasn’t breathing. During an opiate overdose the respiratory system stops working and the victim is unable to breathe on her own, but there is no good reason that an opiate user should ever die from an overdose. By giving an overdose victim mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, it is possible to artificially keep the respiratory system going until the part of the brain needed for this function comes back online. There is also a drug called naloxone that paramedics—and all opiate users ought to—carry that can be injected to overpower the opiates causing the overdose. When needle exchange programs distribute naloxone, hundreds of lives are saved every year.
Seeing her limp, breathless body on the asphalt, I quickly ran to give her a few breaths. I knew to call for help, but I also was well aware that I was in possession of illegal drugs that could result in my imprisonment. For self-preservation I needed to stash my heroin where it wouldn’t be found. I scrambled to hide my junk a safe distance from us, all the while aware that she needed my lungs to keep her breathing. After hiding the drugs and assorted paraphernalia between other cars, I returned to her side. In between breaths I shouted for help. Moments later a curious homeless man appeared. I screamed at the man to call 911, then breathed more air into her unconscious body. He wandered off to find a payphone. I continued breathing into her and shouting for help until an ambulance arrived. The paramedics injected her with naloxone and took her to the hospital. The next morning I picked her up from the hospital and drove her to her friend’s house. She survived to live another day. I never saw her again.
Jesse, my close friend since I was 5 and he was 7, didn’t enjoy the same fate. I presume he hadn’t used heroin since he had last overdosed more than a decade ago when we were both active users. In the fall of 2010, he chose to revisit the drug with his new girlfriend. When he stopped breathing, his girlfriend made a series of fatal decisions. Afraid to call for help, she followed the script of urban myths and dragged Jesse into the bathtub where she ran cold water on him. He would have turned 40 years old this last October. Instead, his boy is growing up without a father.
Monique recently retired from the Boulder syringe exchange after 30 years. In 1999, when I was convulsing on my apartment floor with cotton fever, sweating in pain, unable to move or drink fluids, I called Monique for help. Without missing a beat she came to my house and took me to the hospital where I managed to walk in with a severely low blood pressure of 60 over 30. A few months later her colleague Rodney, who recently left the needle exchange after 22 years, took me to the detox center when I requested his help. That was one of the first of my many attempts to kick the habit. Like most drug addicts, it took several tries before I was able to finally quit.
When I texted my ex-girlfriend from our junkie years to update her on Rodney and Monique’s status, she wrote back, “I don’t have AIDS because of them.” I don’t know what drove Monique and Rodney to serve us; I do know that their work saved our lives. They treated us with dignity instead of like criminals. They would come to our home on a weekly basis to pick up our dirty needles and drop off clean ones. I never shared a needle.
Needle exchanges save lives and prevent the spread of communicable diseases. When we accept people where they are at, we can support them through difficult times. Some people, like my ex-girlfriend and me, eventually overcome addiction. Others may use the rest of their lives. No matter what the case, it is better for all of us when we treat drug users with compassion. Drug use does not make someone bad or immoral. Plenty of nice people use drugs.
Considering his situation, Oshan is in good spirits and making the best of his time behind bars. He has an intense spiritual practice, he exercises and reads lots of books, and he’s been blessed with lots of visitors so far. But the guards and other inmates bully him, and as a smaller Buddhist he isn’t equipped to stand up for himself in the culture there. While it might be interesting to have a conversation with a few of his fellow inmates, like impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and Enron embezzler Jeffrey Skilling, 60% of the people Oshan’s locked up with are in prison for sex crimes. Many of the sex offenders may have only been looking at child porn and had never actually touched a child, but many others are predators who should be removed from society. Oshan should not have been removed from society.
Oshan is serving 12 and a half years for the possession and intent to distribute MDMA and LSD. The nuances of his case are not my concern, nor whether he is guilty or not guilty (he pleaded not guilty and is hoping to appeal his case). What does concern me—and in my opinion ought to be the concern of any compassionate person—is that adult, nonviolent, consensual activity ought never be a crime. We may have taken Oshan out of society, but we haven’t made a dent in the availability of MDMA or LSD. Paraphrasing Ethan Nadelmann and Ira Glasser of the Drug Policy Alliance, the train of justice will not stop until we completely remove the criminal justice system from its involvement in non-violent drug activities.
It’s one thing to talk numbers, to comment on the fact that there are about 500,000 nonviolent drug offenders locked up in the US, roughly 109,000 of them in the federal prison system. That the US has only 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. It’s another thing to walk through a steel cage and see a real human sitting there who is being treated like an animal in a factory farm. It’s one thing to talk about how the drug war is the new Jim Crow and that it outrageously targets people of color. It’s another thing to see a mom in tears wailing to a crowd of 1,500 people, sharing how she lost 20 years of her life to prison for her drug use, that her son was raised without a mother, and that the cycle of suffering continues as her son is now serving life in prison.
Oshan is not a statistic. He is a real person with a mother and a girlfriend who are both devastated by his situation. Anyone who takes a compassionate approach to drug policy understands that Oshan is not the criminal in this situation. The real criminals are those who perpetuate the draconian policies of the drug war.
Why am I not in Oshan’s place tonight? Luck. Plain and simple. I’ve committed drug crimes that could have put me behind bars. How do I feel about Oshan’s situation? I’m mad. I’m mad at the system for ignoring the consequences of ham-fisted laws. And I’m sad. I’m sad for Oshan, and for his family and friends. What will I do with my anger and sadness? I’ll stay on the drug policy reform train until we win, even if that means I have to fight the good fight until the day I die.
I'm Proof Compassionate Policies Save Lives
Information, knowledge and compassionate policies save lives. Drug policy reformers, harm reductionists and compassionate activists have long championed Good Samaritan policies, also known as medical amnesty policies. These policies take away the fear of calling for help by providing immunity from prosecution to the person who calls for help during drug overdoses. When these policies are in place—and the public is informed about them—we don’t needlessly lose people to easily preventable deaths.
I broke my addiction to injecting heroin and cocaine 12 years ago after four years of struggle. How did I make it through that awful dark period in my life? With the help, love, support, and compassion of my friends, family and people I hardly even know. Today I am the executive director of a nonprofit think tank, I’ve earned two academic degrees, I bought my own home, I earn an honest living, and I’m a healthy, productive 37-year-old member of society.
After I kicked my habit I worked with a drug treatment center for four years. I have firsthand experience of the mind's capacity to bury childhood traumas, which then become unconscious motivators of our actions. When I see a junkie on the street or counsel a haunted soul, I see the damaged children who grew up and don't even know why they do what they do. I know they can be supported with love, compassion and forgiveness. I know they won't be cured by adding more punishment to their wounded lives.
Someday, when prohibition is replaced with sensible regulation, humanity will look back on the drug war the same way we look back at the dark ages. We will collectively wonder how we allowed our governments to lock people in cages when compassion and smart regulation are the true ways to reduce the harms of drug use and assist in breaking the cycles of addiction.