The Point is the Point: Remembering Dave Purchase

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If you told Dave Purchase he was a pioneer, he would probably lean forward and say “speak up partner, can’t hear you, I’ve got a pie in my ear.” If you insisted, he would probably add that we’re all pioneers, to not doubt that we are correct in what we do — that we do god’s work and anyone insisting otherwise has their heads in a place that only your gastroenterologist should be visiting once every 5 years if you’re over 50.


Nonetheless, if anyone does deserve the pioneer accolade it is Dave Purchase. He started the first public syringe exchange program in Tacoma, Washington back in 1988 (Jon Parker was also doing exchange on the east coast at the same time but without the imprimatur of health authorities). Dave saw the need for a beleaguered community to come together, celebrate, exchange information and receive mutual support, so he organized the first North American Syringe Exchange Convention (NASEC) in 1990; 7 programs were there. By 1991, there were a few dozen programs and in 1992, amfAR funded the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN) with Dave at the helm.


NASEN had several critical components. For one, it provided start up kits. This meant that if you wanted to start an exchange, you didn’t have to worry about figuring out how to find needles and supplies – you simply called NASEN, got a starter kit, and started exchanging. NASEN organized the annual NASEC convention in Tacoma, Boston, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Baltimore and so on. NASEC is a place where we all met and made love. NASEN created a buyer’s club to get the cheapest possible price on syringes. NASEN provided a grants program whereby if you successfully got your program up and running and survived the first few months, you could apply to NASEN for a few thousand dollars to keep doing the work. It was never enough for salaries, but it was enough for supplies. The grants were handwritten at times, they were late, they were typed on typewriters, they were cut and pasted from the previous year’s application with the same spurious, but unnecessary, statistics. They were written by researchers or people with know-how on occasion — but mostly, they were written by people who had never written anything previously. If the conference was the introduction to public speaking, then the grants program was the introduction to the world of funding.  Dave, through NASEN, created the syringe exchange movement in the US. He never lost his vision that the grassroots needed respect and support.


But what really sealed the deal was that NASEN was Dave on the end of a cell phone. Dave who knew everything you were going through and who knew the answers. Dave who commiserated and calmed you down. Dave who made you laugh. Dave who recognized that what you had going on was central to the HIV epidemic. Dave who could get you out of a mess and/or get you the extra supplies. Dave who would fly down or show up and stand shoulder to shoulder with you.


Dave was a charismatic speaker. Not in the preachy way of rousing an audience, but in the common sense, down home way of getting the point across. The point was the point and there was not a need to elaborate. We didn’t want the whole pie just our fair share of a bigger pie. He broke things down in the simplest ways so that even an idiot bureaucrat could not have a comeback that meant a damn. He was the master of the shaggy dog story. He became the master of the koan. Sometimes there was no punch line but there was wisdom. He was always the grey beard – aged and ageless and wise.


Dave was also a member of the Harm Reduction Working Group which became the Harm Reduction Coalition and thus he was one of our founders. Dave had the capacity to make everyone he came across feel included, relevant and vital. He was equal opportunity and didn’t class one person as more significant or important than another. Actually, that’s probably wrong – if you ran a small syringe exchange program then you were perhaps more important than someone who ran a large syringe exchange program because you needed more loving and support. He was a person with the capacity to do that. He embodied warmth and friendship.


Dave was my friend for a long time. I can hear his greeting and I can hear the way he chuckled when he talked. We saw each other through marriages, illness and deaths. We fought over nothing and we partnered over big things. I can’t stand all that crap about how great the US is or how great Americans are but if anyone has ever stood for being the incarnation of a great American, it is Dave Purchase. It is a cliché but he was cut from a unique set of cloth. He was a great American. He was an outstanding human being. He changed the world.


Listen to an interview with Dave: Download the MP3, recorded December 8, 2010 with Don Des Jarlais of Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute, Dave Purchase of North American Syringe Exchange Network and Jenny Panzo of Access Project. 


Tribute to Dave Purchase by Nick Crofts 


Dave wrote Aaron (Peak)’s tribute just a little while back; that was so hard for him. Now we’re writing his … in my life, he was a major determinant. I was cooling my heels in Seattle-King County Health Department in 1989 (or something like that, I can never get the dates right – Holly will remember), bored stiff, when I decided to drive down to Tacoma and introduce myself to this bloke who was on the street with a card table. As he gave some fits to a client on the street, he said “Man, if you OD and kill yourself, don’t you come running to me …” and got a big laugh from the client, the volunteer workers with the program, the clients around and about, the lady from the Health Department (what was her name, Holly?) … and I think even from the two police sitting in the patrol car chatting with the workers, clearly friends of Dave’s.


My life took a 90 degree turn at that point … I went back to Oz knowing what I was going to be doing for the next 20 years; the Asian Harm Reduction Network, the first of the regional harm reduction networks, was inspired by NASEN, and Dave was there to help form it. The following year (Holly, which year?), Dave convened the first NASEC, in Tacoma: Aaron Peak was there, told of how he had a dream, and in this dream Dave had appeared and told him to go forth and save lives … and after Hawaii, Aaron proceeded  to do just that in Asia, introducing harm reduction to a continent. Fabio Mesquita was there, and told of Dave’s inspiration to him, and how he was introducing harm reduction to another continent (I’ve copied Fabio on this). In 1992 Dave was awarded the first International Rolleston Award, on behalf of the gallant band of needle-exchangers in the U.S., very many of whom were doing what they were doing because Dave inspired them.


Aside from the intense, warm, trusting, accepting, lasting personal friendship Dave gave, this is what stays with me about his contribution – the ability to inspire others. When the accounting is made of Dave’s contribution, take into account the contributions of all those Dave inspired to contribute too.


And all the people Dave inspired share one characteristic with him, one he had in spades, one he’d almost cornered the market on – like Aaron, like Fabio, like so many in this field, he accepted people for what they were, he valued them for their very existence, he made it known to them and everyone else that their lives were equally important as his and everyone else’s. This is the hallmark and the revolution of the harm reduction movement; it’s the hallmark of all the great people the harm reduction movement has spawned – and Dave stamped this all over the North American scene, and through his acolytes all over the world. The significance of his contribution to harm reduction – which was very much a part of Dave’s being and life, he didn’t have different personae for different worlds, what you saw was what you got was what was there – cannot be overestimated.


I cannot believe I am writing in the past tense about him; though we saw each other only once or twice a year, his presence in the world was a taken-for-granted, a defining pole, a constant point of reference when there was trouble or confusion, an ethical touchstone. I feel his loss as a void, in my life, and in the whole world of those who stand up for the powerless – really stand up, through their lives and being, not just through rhetoric. Not that he wasn’t a master of rhetoric too … whatever it took, that’s what had to be done.


Dave deserves a biography, not just a tribute. A book, a film, a documentary of an extraordinary person, an extraordinary life, in an extraordinary time. He should go on inspiring … even if it’s just for the few old farts he left behind, like Fabio and me and Jimmy and some of the others whose lives he changed forever.