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Harm Reduction…What’s Human Rights Got to Do with It?

This blog post is the first in a series that will explore the connection between harm reduction theory and the concept of basic human rights. For years, U.S. lawmakers and the public have allowed their personal moral beliefs to override the proven physiological benefits of the harm reduction model. As we struggle to knock down these walls of ignorance countless lives are being lost. As long as the “War on Drugs” is fought by those who reject harm reduction theory there can be no victory.

– By Brian Thompson

I am a product of the housing projects of the Lower East Side.  I was a street level drug addict, in the mix every day. Shooting up on sidewalks, rooftops, hallways, and abandoned buildings. I was a New York City junkie to the core.

I had been smoking cocaine since that day in June 1980 when I first heard the reports that Richard Pryor had caught himself on fire doing some new form cocaine referred to as freebasing.   The first hit of freebase was an awakening for me.  I had never before in my life known such pleasure. Instant Nirvana had been achieved in my life, finally. This was a feeling I wanted to last forever.  Instead, it was a feeling I ended up trying to re-create – often unsuccessfully – for many years to come.

India looked at me from across the table, as she exhaled the smoke from her latest hit off the crack pipe, she said to me, “you really are wasting your time smoking coke.  Shooting it is the way to go.”  It was 1993; I was living on 6th street and avenue C in New York City, yet spent most of my time in the apartment belonging to Latrell and India on 7th and C.  The apartment was handed down to India by her now hospitalized grandmother; we quickly turned it into a crack house.  “Why don’t you shoot it if it is so good?” was my reply.  She explained to me that her boyfriend, Latrell, forbid her to shoot drugs.   She went on to explain the benefits of shooting cocaine over smoking it.  She described the differences in the highs as best she could, explaining to me that the high is unimaginable.  India had planted the seed in my head.  And, as I was to find out, she wouldn’t stop sowing it until I made the plunge into IV drug use.

I was aware of the HIV epidemic from the very beginning.  I knew some of the suspected routes by which the disease was transmitted. In the 80’s we believed there were many other ways to transfer the HIV virus besides injection drug use and unprotected sex.  (One classic example of the unfounded panic created by the pandemic of AIDS would be the case of a Hollywood actress, Linda Evans, and the onscreen kisses shared with her Dynasty co-star Rock Hudson, the first major Hollywood star to succumb to the illness.  Everyone thought she would surely get AIDS as well.)   My older brother was gay, and my mother was always insisting that he was going to get AIDS (he did).  We were aware of the transference of the virus via dirty syringes that was occurring when doctors without resources reused needles at the clinics in Haiti, spreading the disease among the population.  I saw an entire ethnic group ostracized by this invisible killer, as well a subculture of my own New York City clan.  The news was terrifying and it was everywhere.  There was a great panic in New York City and around the world.

Lower East Side Needle Exchange Program
Lower East Side Needle Exchange Program, 1992


Looking back at this time, I have to question why – knowing as much as we did at the time regarding the potential transmission routes of AIDS – why wasn’t more done?   Why were my friends and family denied basic human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 25 (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control?  How come it didn’t apply to my family and friends?  Why was government on the City, State and Federal levels allowed to impose sentence on my friends and family solely based on the perceived morality of the way they lived their lives?

At the time it was considered political suicide to step outside of the norm and support groups such as those doing needle exchange. They offered the first logical solution in the war on AIDS.  The ideas were revolutionary to some, but basic common sense to others:  provide education about safer use, as well as clean equipment, to individuals engaging in behaviors that put them at risk of contracting AIDS.  It was simple logic.  Cut down the opportunity for the disease to be transmitted, and fewer people will get infected; lives will be saved.  Nonetheless, politicians too afraid of losing votes would not take the radical step of supporting needle exchange.

Early on, I became personally involved with the Lower East Side Needle Exchange Program (LESNEP).  I understood they were trying to save lives by educating injection drug users about the dangers of sharing a set of works with another person.  I also knew that somehow they were providing new syringes to drug users at no cost. I became closely acquainted with the needle exchange when my personal drug dealer – who had a stash of hundreds of syringes in his Kips Bay apartment – would sometimes give me an extra bag of dope if I would help him bring his old syringes to the exchange to get new ones.  I was fully aware of the routine involved in attaining clean syringes before I ever injected and drugs into my own arm.

When I made the decision to inject drugs, I knew where to go to get sterile syringes.  It was an incredible experience for me that first day when I walked in through the doors of LESNEP on Ave C; I knew that I was going to take these next steps in my drug experience with the guidance of informed adults that were interested in reducing the chances that I would get sick or die. For my entire existence, the lives and deaths of junkies had been shrouded in secrecy – a world of whispers between adults.  The only messages available were filled with terror and nightmares used to frighten us as children in an attempt to discourage drug use.  Yet, here was information laid out neatly before me on a series of tables.  This killer – HIV – the unseen destroyer of so many families and lives, was being fought here on avenue C by a group of concerned humanitarians that saw beyond the social stigma.  At a time when we thought there were no weapons to combat HIV, this group had the foresight to do the unthinkable, the unmentionable – they provided clean equipment and education to the users of illegal drugs and encouraged the practice of safe sex when the only other option being given at the time was abstinence.    There were happy, sweet adults behind the table encouraging me to act responsibly when partaking in in the socially unacceptable practice of IV drug use.  In all honesty, this was slightly confusing to me in the beginning and left me with many questions in my inquisitive mind.  However, I never questioned their motives.  I took their advice, read their literature, and this program – in no uncertain terms – saved my life.

Today I live a sober life free of HIV and Hep C. Many of my friends are not alive today because, unfortunately, they started using drugs before the exchange came into existence. Many of my surviving friends are not so lucky and are living with HIV and/or hepatitis C.  Some of them have options in their treatment for these chronic diseases, others do not.  I firmly believe that it is only because of my involvement with the Needle Exchange Program that today, at age 50, I am in reasonably good health and am a living example of the benefits of needle exchange. As a father and a humanitarian, I am extremely thankful knowing that this option is available to educate, challenge stigma and combat unnecessary deaths for generations to come.

Brian Thompson is studying for a degree in psychology and human rights at Hunter College. He lives in New York City.

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