Why do we still believe that letting drug addicts "hit rock bottom" is a good thing?

Our densely populated, low-income neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver has 16,000 residents and about 6,000 injection drug users. Day after day, I’ve seen kind, funny and gentle people lose their families, get sicker, become more isolated a

Including people living with addiction into society should not be revolutionary thinking in 2013. However, in many ways the addict is the modern-day “nigger”, a term used to dehumanise, alienate, torture and abuse a group of other human beings. Today, people who use drugs – “junkies” – are expected to suffer, then blamed when they do, and if they die there is almost a collective sigh of relief.

Understanding the work that my organisation, PHS, does with addicts on the streets in Vancouver can best be explained by introducing you to one of my teachers. Tilly was a waif-like, 40-year-old aboriginal woman who I met in my early twenties. Her hollow cheeks and deep-set dark eyes were childlike, imploring and innocent – in spite of her “experience”. Locked in a room and malnourished as a child, Tilly was addicted to prescription pills by the age of 11. By the time she was 15 she had tried to end her life by slitting her throat with a kitchen knife.

When I met Tilly she was working in the sex trade, injecting heroin and cocaine, and drinking. One night she was raped and beaten, and as I held her in my lap, bloodied and broken, I rocked her like a tiny bird. She told me through her sobs that it was her fault. I felt her emptiness and I understood her cries. Hers were not the cries of a criminal but of a wounded soul who felt her life was worthless.

Our densely populated, low-income neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver has 16,000 residents and about 6,000 injection drug users. Here, I started running a 70-room housing project in 1991, and for 23 years I have seen the human fallout of our collective ignorance. Day after day, I’ve seen kind, funny and gentle people lose their families, get sicker, become more isolated and die.

The people I have come to know and grown to love have helped me heal myself. My own white, privileged family was not unfamiliar with tragedy. My mother suffered her own pain and left us when I was a child. I knew what it was like to feel empty and alone.

We hear all the time how addicts are selfish liars who steal from their families, cause pain, smash car windows to steal things and get into fights. We have created brutalising conditions that result in addicts being vilified and that cause enormous harm. However, I have also experienced a unique window into the resilience, humanity and strength of people trying to survive while actively addicted.

Throughout the 1990s, alongside my partner and my colleagues, I had to go against the common logic of the day as we wrestled over how to help. We intuitively gravitated to the belief that people might be able to do better if survival wasn’t so hard, and over the years we have succeeded in creating spaces that are tolerant, respectful and inclusive – where people struggling with addiction can live, find social membership, a sense of belonging and the basics.

This flew in the face of the received wisdom that said people had to “hit rock bottom” or society was somehow “encouraging them”.

As the death toll from drugs mounted in 1997, we rebranded our community “the Killing Fields”. The number of drug users developing HIV was on a par with Botswana; meanwhile, more than 400 drug overdoses happened in our province in just one year. The level of grief was profound, so we flew in experts from around the world to talk about things that we could try: supervised injection sites, heroin maintenance, harm reduction.

Drug users themselves used their voices and parent groups spoke out. Brave politicians stood up and some lost their careers. Gradually the public became educated through extensive media coverage and community debates. By 2003, the tide had shifted and on 21 September we opened North America’s first legally sanctioned supervised injection site, or “Insite”, as a partnership between our non-profit organisation and our local health authority. We saw people come in to what felt like a sanctuary – out of the back alleys to indoors, where users could inject their drugs under the supervision of a nurse.

Over these past ten years almost two million injections have happened here, and 14,000 individuals have come in. Each year, 400 referrals are made into treatment. The staff revive, on average, 40 people a month who overdose and not one person has died.

Today, we have a more sophisticated understanding that an individual, while addicted, still has the right to live. We have created places like our dental clinic, art gallery and bank, and social enterprises that are reshaping the landscape. For example, with over 4,500 members, our community bank (a partnership with Vancity Credit Union) offers savings and checking accounts to people who are unwelcome, banned or followed by security guards in conventional financial institutions. New units of housing have been funded by our provincial government, targeting the most vulnerable homeless and addicted.

Health-care services have been established that are relevant to people actively using drugs. Social enterprises have been created to give people – addicted or not – jobs, at the vintage clothing store, chocolate and coffee roasters, art studio and retail store, commercial laundry and pest-control company.

For those of us who remember how dark it felt 20 years ago, there is much to celebrate in Vancouver in 2013. People in our community are living ten years longer.

Tilly was kind, sensitive, gentle and generous, but in the end she died of Aids because no one had cared enough to make sure she had access to a clean syringe. As a society, we told her that her life didn’t matter and she believed us.

It’s time to stop punishing and start creating solutions to the walls of intolerance and hatred we’ve built. These steps, though seemingly small, can create a new social context, one that redefines the addict from a non-person to a person, a criminal to a citizen, someone “diseased” to someone who just needs love, belonging and a community, just like me.

Liz Evans is the founder and executive director of PHS Community Services Society, which helps drug users in Vancouver

Drug users at Insite, a legal supervised injection site in Vancouver. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.