I travel a lot, and I cling to a semblance of routine while I am on the road in order to keep from going insane. For instance, a few weeks ago I was working in Woodland Hills California, and the Marriott had a nice shoeshine right in the lobby. Part of not sucking at life, for me involves transforming past obsessive behaviors into new healthy ones. Whereas in the past, I would have hit the streets as soon as I got to San Fernando Valley to try and find a drug connection, now I am impelled to polish my boots. New town, new polish, and so on. I love my boots, and I love the anachronism in having some guy polish them while I look at the newspaper. Soo….The 9th annual harm reduction conference was held in Portland Oregon this year, an event I have wanted to attend since before I even knew it existed (or so I always say), but at least since 2007 when a friend of mine who worked the local exchange in Salinas got back from Austin TX with a huge smile on his face and lots of great stories of strategy, skill building, and many attractive anarcho-punks (perhaps less important but still a draw for me). At the time I could barely afford a bus ride across town, let alone a plane ticket to Austin TX, but I resolved to make the conference a priority as soon as I got my shit together. Well everybody, 2012 is evidently the year I got my shit together officially because guess where I just got back from? (well, relatively just got back….not that long ago….) Thanks entirely to a generous scholarship from the Harm Reduction Coalition and a generous stipend from the Northern Nevada Outreach Team…without the help of those two organizations there is no way I could have afforded to make the trip, and eat, and survive….so maybe next year will be the year I actually get my shit together. Stay tuned…Upon my arrival in Portland, and yet another Marriott hotel, I embarked on another early morning shoe shine mission. The early mornings, between 7 and 9, are the prime times for shoe shining, because businessmen are on the way to work, lawyers are on the way to the court, etcetera. So I got a coffee (meh.)and a newspaper, typed ‘ shoeshine’ into my GPS, and started walking. 3 and a half hours later, I had dirty boots, a cold cup of coffee, and a wadded up ball of newspaper. I still haven’t figured out how a town of that size could not have a shoeshine booth, either independent, or in the lobby of one of the many fancy pants hotels I sought out. But in spite of the rocky start, we were able to salvage a positive experience, Portland and I….
…..Just as my friend promised, the conference WAS inspiring and transformative and chock full of pretty dread-locked girls with back patches, poppy tattoos and political ideas just as kooky as mine. When I start talking to my progressive friends about my political core concepts they sort of get a far away look in their eye and start changing the subject or remember an important phone call they needed to make. It’s not that I am advocating anything totally crazy like insurrection, revolution, workers seizing the means of production, or voting for Ron Paul. I speak in broad terms about every man’s right to liberty and autonomy, our duty to take up mutual aid, direct action, and radical self reliance – our need to value respect, tolerance and individual happi…there, I caught you checking your text messages! It’s okay, I know, I do it too when a crazy guy is talking, But see, at the conference these concepts were bandied about like they were actually valuable …pshaw, I know, insane right?….and it wasn’t just because I was in Portland either!! I found some people from all over America with similar values as mine! Finally! (What are they called again? Peers?) I mean I definitely have my friends and fellow crusaders for social justice here on NNOT and PHASA but I don’t know…it was a pretty wild feeling that first day – totally surrounded by comrades from all walks of life: students, volunteers, social workers, public health officials, nurses, law enforcement, Catholics, ex-convicts, former addicts, outreach workers, current addicts, clinic workers, sex workers, lion tamers , rehabilitation center counselors – (just kidding no lion tamers) a broad cross section of different socio-economic backgrounds, educations, professions, sexualities, races…. men and women, young and old…a lot of different types of people coming together to tackle the problem of addiction and it’s widespread impact on the community as a whole. A community just as diverse and varied as the attendees of the convention. I felt like the polar opposite of how Hunter S Thompson must have felt when he inadvertently stumbled into that cop convention just as his acid was kicking in. Instead of lizard people I saw angels. It may have just been my excitement at being there for the first time, but I feel like the passion that was in the air gave everyone an extra look of serenity and holiness, and if it could have somehow been harnessed and transformed into energy it may have been capable of launching the waterfront Marriott into space, or at least as far as Redding.
I felt the way an Amway salesperson must feel when they meet others from their native planet at the annual gathering in Las Vegas, or the way a neo-hippie candy raver sparkle pony feels when they go to Burning Man for the first time. I felt the way that Frank N Furter feels at the end of Rocky Horror when he realizes he is finally going home. It was indescribable really, but for the purposes of this post, for lack of accurate vocabulary, I will most likely say things like inspiring or transformative a lot. So now that we have established that it felt amazing and inspiring and ended up being a somewhat transformative 4 days in the gray, drizzly, and utterly devoid of shoeshine stands city of Portland. There were many bridges, and many strip clubs, but not one place to polish your leather. I will go on to explain some of the important things I learned while I was gorging myself on Voodoo Donuts and underwhelming over-hyped coffee and being all inspired and transformed. For instance, we should have a log book for our outreach team. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that? Simple and so effective at improving our performance! See what I mean? Don’t you feel inspired yet? If you don’t you probably haven’t gone on any outreach walks with us yet. YET. (Call me. We need you.) Okay I am getting carried away here. First thing first, even more important than the log book thing, is the following piece of doggerel: ONE HIT ONE KIT DON’T SHARE SHIT. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually an innovation in terms of HCV prevention…conventional wisdom has always been that as long as a person didn’t share needles with anyone they wouldn’t be able to contract any diseases….and that is definitely true when it comes to HIV, which cannot survive in the open air. Yes, oxygen is toxic to the HIV virus, but it can survive in the vacuum of a syringe….so intravenous drug users were told that the best thing they could do to cut down on their risk of contracting HIV was to never share or re use needles. It wasn’t that long ago when health officials began to notice an alarming trend….while HIV infections were going down in communities with syringe access programs, HCV (or Hep C) infections were remaining static and in some cases even increasing! Unfortunately, HCV is extremely virulent and can survive in the open air for several days! That means that even if people don’t share needles they can still contract Hep C by sharing ‘works’ i.e.: cookers, cottons, tourniquets…anything that could come in contact with blood during the process of using. It was several years of bad information, with many people thinking they were using safe shooting practices, and inadvertently contracting or spreading HCV. In order to stop the sleeping giant that is this generation’s future HCV pandemic (over 3 million people – 75 % of people who are currently infected don’t know that they are infected!!) from being the sobering death machine that AIDS was in the 1980’s, harm reduction workers are designing a new approach in education that focuses on HIV and HCV by advising clients to use one kit for every hit, and DON’T SHARE ANYTHING. Using this approach not only cuts down on the spread of HCV and HIV, but also bacterial infections, necrotizing fascitis, and gnarly abscesses.
If you are the average citizen, you are not a current or former injection drug user and never will be. It may seem baffling to you that syringe access would be an issue. Thankfully,living on the street and having a physical and mental dependence on drugs is a completely alien lifestyle. I plan to write a whole piece on what a needle exchange looks like and exactly what it does, so I won’t go in to gruesome or dreary details on this one…we will just say that any town of this size without a needle exchange is sitting on top of an ugly, virulent, and desperate underworld…and unfortunately the fallout impacts not just those who reside in this underworld but also first responders, policemen, and children. Clean needles save lives and not just the lives of drug users. But I will expound on that another time. For now we use positive language and stress the fact that WHEN (not if) the legislature decriminalizes syringe access in February, we will have a system that is at the height of modernity and effectiveness, built around ideas such as using one needle for every injection. As residents of northern Nevada, we may be behind in terms of services available for our homeless and addicted, but starting now, we have the potential to arm people with the knowledge to save their lives, so that in the future we hope that sharing cottons or cookers will be looked upon as just as bad an idea as sharing needles. It seems like such a simple thing, but it is actually a revolutionary concept. Of course, it is crazy to think that no one will ever re use their works or share cottons just like its crazy to think that people will always have safe sex. But remember the name of the game is harm REDUCTION not total absence of all harm….any improvement is positive.
Getting back to the conference, just so we are on the same page, so far we have been inspired by the dedicated, diverse, and wildly attractive crowd, and we have revolutionized our approach to syringe access and hepatitis C control. That right there would be more than most conferences accomplish in a week, and on the first day! But did we pack it in early and spend the rest of our trip roaming the streets of Portland in search of good record stores and handcrafted yarn things with birds on them? We did not! Why, every single day spent in attendance was literally a cavalcade of skill building, knowledge acquisition, friend making, and goal setting.(also yoga if you are into that) And that’s just between 830 am and 700 pm! I am sure I don’t have to tell you that the already tragically hip nightclubs in the area were overrun with awesome-ness every night after the classes let out….whether the ubiquitous bookstore coffee shop combo, the even more ubiquitous strip club, the disgusting PBR soaked dive, or the oh so boozhy well lit wine bar, you couldn’t find a crappy conversation if you tried! Thousands and thousands of current and former drug users, current and former sex workers, doctors, nurses, social workers, volunteers, and activists of the armchair and full time variety running wild in the streets of the pacific northwest. Just as much to be learned at the nightclub as the classroom, as I am sure any conference attendee will testify.
In the four days I was at the conference, I attended sessions on modeling syringe access centers, vein health and safe shooting practices, advocacy from the local to the federal level, drug use trends in nightlife and electronic music festivals, effective outreach, hepatitis C, and public art. By the end of each day I had learned so much that ideas were sloshing out of my ears and onto my shoes and I was, most nights and to my shame, way too exhausted to go out and party with the drug users and sex workers. I attended the conference with several colleagues from Reno, so we were able to adopt a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, by not doubling up on sessions we were able to compare notes later and thus maximize the total amount of knowledge brought home. There were 4 of us this year. In 2014 the biannual conference will be in Baltimore, and it is my hope that every board member of PHASA will be able to attend. We could have brought a whole van load of people and still not seen or heard everything this year, but by God I want to try next time. I had my eyes completely opened to a lot of concepts that were totally foreign to me, and I can only be a better advocate and outreach worker as a result. It was amazing for me to see the light go on over some of my colleagues’ heads as well. Although I was with a group of street savvy and socially conscious bad asses, I am the only one of us with a history as a homeless IDU. I am only saying this because that life was my life and I have been desensitized to some aspects of it, and as a result I sometimes forget that when I say something like ‘muscling’ or ‘chipping’ that the person who I am talking to may have no idea what the hell I am talking about, or may have another idea then I do….I have been so awash in the sea of needles and street life that I usually forget that most people have never even seen another person shoot up, or cop from a street corner, or experience cold turkey withdrawals. If I am to be a responsible and effective advocate for this cause, I should remind myself that everyone reacts differently to this kind of subject matter, and often react arbitrarily. By paying attention to the things that resonate with people who have a different experience than mine I can effectively communicate with more and more diverse people, because harm reduction based policies should be the norm, and everyone should be demanding their implementation, not just the lefties. Right now this is most definitely not the case, but I can only hope that as the numbers continue to prove that harm reduction is the most common sense, effective, result driven policy we have at our disposal in terms of dealing with sex and drug addiction on a broad level – as the numbers continue to demonstrate that these programs stop the spread of disease and drug overdose fatalities, we can only hope that more people will come around, regardless of their party affiliations or lack thereof. That’s the nice thing about numbers, they owe no political allegiance. The bummer is that numbers have shown the abstinence centered ‘war on drugs’ to be bankrupt for years, and long term success rates for abstinence centered 12 step recovery programs are equally as abysmal…I guess when it comes to ‘morality’ effectiveness is not as important as moral high ground.
I have been home from Portland for a few weeks now, and we have already begun to implement some of the ideas we picked up while were there. We have formed much needed alliances with established organizations for guidance and help of the material and idealistic varieties…we are but a fledgling group of upstarts, and the advice we have received from our new friends has already proven valuable – not to mention the offers of supplies we have received! When people learn that we are a new group, and what we are trying to do here in Nevada..amazing how generous they become. Right now we mainly need the tactical support, but wow, what a nice feeling to be united in solidarity with people all over America who have fought battles similar to ours and prevailed, and go on to fight new battles ahead of us.
Perhaps that might be the nicest thing I brought back from Portland, aside from my new t-shirts, or my notes, or my sweet laminate holder lanyard thing….the feeling of connection and common experience. It’s easy to feel isolated doing this work in Reno where the typical reaction I get from people when I start explaining what we are working toward is somewhere in between total indifference and thinly veiled hostility. Its not that I need the approval of strangers to validate my cause as just, I do this because it needs to be done, certainly not for the social cachet it brings me. The approval of strangers is not needed, no, but the approval, encouragement, and solidarity of hundreds and hundreds of new comrades feels nice. I can only speculate where our little program will be by the time Baltimore rolls around, but I am bound to be in attendance. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I have only been to Baltimore once before, and it was before I had the boots – but my sweetheart has given me a travel sized shoe shine kit just in case – this time, I will be prepared.
GLOSSARY: IDU- Intravenous Drug User
HCV – Hepatitis C Virus
Chipping – Controlled, casual use. Not strung out. Usually refers to
a heroin habit.
Muscling – using a syringe to inject directly into the muscle, rather
than the blood stream. Often a muscle shot is the last
resort of an IDU who has destroyed his veins by
re using syringe or similar unsafe shooting practices.