I grew up in Lewis County and share in the concern about the recent increase in drug-related accidents and deaths that are being reported in the North Country. I am also encouraged to hear of the collaborative efforts of local authorities, community organizers and organizations insistence on tackling drug issues and finding solutions.
It is my hope that effective solutions can be sought and implemented and it is for that reason that I want to strongly suggest that any work to solve these problems involve those that use or have struggled with these substances in the past and want to make a difference. That is, strong and long-lasting solutions need to involve those persons that have themselves been involved in the manufacturing, distribution, and/or use of heroin, cocaine, and other such substances. These persons need to be sought and invited to discuss strategy and implementation. If we want to help the addict, we must empower the person.
Frankly, I do not know of an alternative that is better. Mr. Bud Osborn was a recovering addict, poet, and founder of The Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users (VANDU). VANDU is a group of users and former users in Vancouver, Canada who work to improve the lives of people who use illicit drugs through user-based peer support and education. They are a coalition of people either in the center of this problem or have been there, know the struggles involved, and know the type of hard work and compassion it takes to recover.
One of the reasons for the effectiveness of partnering with and empowering users is that the work itself becomes the reason that they reduce their use, stay sober, or stop manufacturing. Many discover that their history with drug use has given rise to new meaning; namely, to save their friends. Instead of something to feel shameful about, their past use becomes strong credibility in their efforts to pull other users out of the pain of addiction.
Statistics show that it works. The downtown east side of Vancouver (where Mr. Osborn lived and also where drugs and drug addicts had all but taken over) saw life expectancy rise by 10 years and drug-related fatalities were reduced by 80 percent. If you read the history of this part of the city, you’ll find that it was a grassroots effort by VANDU that contributed to clean and safer streets.
I think the alternative has proven to be a drain on our resources. If we criminalize and ostracize the users, distributers, and manufacturers in our communities we will inadvertently perpetuate an “us versus them” dynamic. This dynamic perpetuates the problem we aim to solve. Yes, it is effective to educate and offer treatment to our schools and the general public, but partnering with users is a must if we want to see a statistically meaningful difference. No one in a position of authority can do more to advance safety within our communities than the individuals that understand drug culture firsthand and want to see it change. Those on the “outside” of this culture need to seek and request the help of users and those on the “inside” need to take that courageous step forward.