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Why Drug User Unions are Essential!

The Canadian Harm Reduction Network believes as do most harm reduction organizations around the world, that most drug related harms are not caused by the drugs, rather they are the consequences of the unregulated manufacture and trade of drugs, and the enduring commitment to failed policies and ill-thought-out and inequitably applied laws.  While this is a guiding philosophy of Harm Reduction it is not an attitude shared by most Americans.  We as Americans are taught that drug users are criminals and are unable to do anything but rob, lie, and steal. We are told that people that use drugs are not able to work, be trusted or be accountable.  Sounds about right?  Well that is simply not the truth.  The truth is that not only can people that use drugs hold regular job, they can be responsible, accountable and act with the same integrity as anyone else.  Drug User Unions are one way to promote and protect the health and human rights of people who use drugs.  I am currently the President of the Greensboro, NC chapter of the Urban Survivors Union, a drug user union here in NC.

Harm Reduction Organizations rely on a workforce made up of  skilled,unskilled, paid and unpaid workers. Employees are often Health educators, HIV/AIDS counselors, distributors of safer usage tools, overdose prevention workers, peer workers, Hepatitis C workers, nurses, and case managers. Many people in harm organizations are hired or brought on board because of their lived experiences, including myself.  My experiences with drug use, my criminal record and my Master’s degree in public health make me uniquely suited for harm reduction work.

Illegal drug users have suffered severe marginalization and discrimination which has resulted in epidemics of HIV, hepatitis C, and unintentional drug overdose.  When decisions are made about how to help drug users or respond to their needs, they are largely underrepresented.  “Nothing about us without us” is a a slogan used to communicate  the importance of  enlisting the full participation of drug users when creating programs and policies which affect them. One of the reasons harm reduction organizations have been successful working with drug users while mainstream groups have failed is their inclusion of drug users in program planning and implementation.

The role of harm reduction organizations is to reduce the harm of drug use, and drug policies.   In order to effectively provide services and gain the trust of the population they are working to engage, organizations must employ individuals with relevant life experiences, meaning people that are either past or current drug users.  People that work at these organizations and actively use drugs are often labeled “peer workers”  Peer workers are an indispensable part of harm reduction programs yet according to the Toronoto harm reduction workers union they feel they are stigmatized and discriminated against even within the organizations designed to end stigma and discriminatory practices. They are often unpaid, or paid with gift cards, food etc.  Even though they have often worked at these organizations for years they do not feel they have been treated the same as the professional workforce.

I have often felt the same way.  It is difficult for people with histories of drug use to find viable employment.  Our status as “drug users”  keep us from the positions were are qualified for.  Instead, we are often paid stipends, called on for speaking events and used to engage other people that use drugs. Our full potential cannot be realized until we are given a chance and if harm reduction organizations will not provide those opportunities….who will?  It is my goal to make the Urban Survivors Union (Greensboro, NC Chapter) a union of drug users who are fighting for the rights of drug users here in the southern United States.  I hope to increase membership  and really make a difference in 2015.  Change will never come if we do not stand up and demand it!

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