DRCNet Interview: Ten Years of Organizing Hard Drug Users -- Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users 4/29/05

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In the United States, hard drug users are demonized. They are in Canada, too, even in Vancouver, home to one of the hemisphere's largest concentrations of users in the city's Downtown East Side. But in Vancouver, hard drug users have organized themselves in a way that has allowed them to take a prominent role in shaping the city's cutting edge drug policies, which include North America's only officially sanctioned safe injection site and heroin maintenance program. Taking a lead role in organizing the city's drug users is VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and taking a lead role in VANDU is Ann Livingston, who has been with the group from the beginning. After hearing Livingston address the North American Syringe Exchange Network conference in Tacoma last weekend, Drug War Chronicle interviewed her about how VANDU has brought power to the powerless and a measure of justice to the Downtown East Side.

Drug War Chronicle: VANDU celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. How did the notion of organizing drug users come about?

Ann Livingston and colleagues at the VANDU office
(courtesy VANDU)
Ann Livingston: I had recently moved to the Downtown Eastside and lived in a co-op housing unit and was working with some quite radical people organizing welfare recipients. I had also been involved in the community -- the Downtown Eastside Youth Society board ran a needle exchange program, and I met people who were serious about organizing there. And then I met Melissa Eror, who put out a magazine called "Hype," and I was sort of taken aback that a drug user was putting out a 'zine. I attended a lecture by Larry Campbell -- that was when he was still the coroner -- and Melissa stood up during the Q&A and said she had been using heroin for 20 years. She was really out about her drug use! She spoke articulately about it, and I had just taken an organizing course and I thought it was really important to organize the drug users. We had our first meeting on April 19, 1995. We spent about $100 for pizza and pop and we had about 20 people show up for the first meeting.

It escalated pretty rapidly. Remember, this was at a time when police were macing people they caught shooting up, and this was happening while we had one of the highest drug overdose rates in the world. We had 250 overdose deaths in the city that year -- that number has dropped to about 80 last year. I used a very neighborly style of organizing -- people knew my home phone number and address -- and the meetings morphed into us getting an $8,000 grant from a Vancouver foundation. Much to their shock and dismay, we used it to rent the cheapest storefront we could find in the Downtown Eastside, and that became our first office. We would do two meetings a week, one for users and one for volunteers.

These are people who had never been asked what they think will solve these problems, so you try to get them to talk more than you. We went around the room with each person saying his piece: What would a drug user group do? What would you like to get out of this group? These are people who have been penned up for years in windowless rooms and prison cells; they've had time to think, and they don't suffer from the sense that they've been treated justly. I don't have to convince them there's a problem.

And you learn some insights. There were people who said, "I never got a police beating I didn't deserve." What?! Who believes that? Someone who's been beaten by the police repeatedly. That's not something middle-class people expect or accept. And when I hear that, I bring the police in and ask them to comment, and they say, "Oh, no, that's not proper policing," and all the drug users get to hear the cops say that. There is consciousness raising going on.

Chronicle: How did you get drug users to become part of the process?

Livingston: My organizing training taught me that you have to listen to the people and let them tell you what the issues are. I would take tons of notes and try to boil down the issues, like police harassment, no place to go, treatment at the hospital, and then I would ask them, "Am I right? Is that what you meant?" That's where an organizer has work to do. Once the issues were identified, it was a matter of being heard. At first it was just going to police board meetings -- and it took a year before a drug user would come with me! But then, if anyone had a meeting on anything, we were there. A new neighborhood action plan seeking comment? We were there. A hearing at the health board about a problem at the hospital? We were there. We would come in with a bunch of drug users -- making sure everyone had eaten first and coming together as a group -- and they do look like addicts. But they speak honestly and thoughtfully and from the heart. And it was great. They would come to meetings with me, and then finally, the first user would get up and speak. And then they just light up like Christmas trees. At those health board meeting, those addicts talking about their lives was a story, and the press was there. Pretty soon we were in the media constantly.

And the public expression of pain is subversive. Canadians are good people. If they knew what was happening in the Downtown Eastside they would help us, so every time there was an increase in overdose deaths, we would do a demo. We had addicts saying, "My buddy died in my arms yesterday." It was honest and heartfelt. My job was to get out of the way and figure out how to let these voices be heard directly.

Chronicle: How do you get people -- police, politicians, local businesses -- to respect what many of them would consider a bunch of junkies?

Livingston: Our first volunteer gig was patrolling the port-o-potties the city set up to stop people from going to the bathroom in the alleys. Our people watched them to make sure they didn't get vandalized. That was because of another meeting I went to where the problem was being discussed and they asked for people to help. We volunteered. That's the way you begin to get respect, to move from being a criminalized drug addict to someone articulate who is doing volunteer work to improve things in his community. VANDU was a vehicle for that, and we did it with active drug users, which presents its own problems. What do you do about the people who will tweak? We tell them if they can't not use for four hours, don't volunteer. People fought long and hard to get these little bits of work, and community volunteers are very respected, so don't screw it up. But through VANDU active drug users can and do volunteer. If they went to most other agencies as volunteers, they would be told come back when you're clean.

Chronicle: VANDU pushed the boundaries from the beginning, didn't it?

Livingston: Never ask permission. Do what you know to be right, do your research. That's what we did with the needle exchange program at Main and Hastings. Before anyone knows it, you're already doing it. The authorities were shocked -- we were giving out a thousand needles a night, and it led to a big fight between the health people and the cops. The cops came with 17 officers and gave us a ticket for blocking pedestrian traffic and took our table away. That's how it was in the early years -- heartbreaking and overwhelming. You just ran on adrenaline. The disaster around us couldn't be exaggerated.

Later, it was the same thing with our safe injection site. We didn't ask for permission. We had active drug users supervising an injection site where 200 people would come on the busiest nights. We had two user volunteers who were paid $10 each and given a pound of coffee and some tobacco, and they were to watch the doors, man the phones, revive overdoses. It was bizarre. We had no money. It was crazy in there, but it was better than the alley. We called it the Back Alley Drop-In. The street nurses would come by frequently. The police would come by frequently, too, but they didn't shut us down.

Chronicle: What is the current membership of VANDU, in numbers and in kinds of people involved?

Ann Livingston: There are 1600 names on the VANDU list, although some of them are dead. But we don't take their names of the list for two reasons. First, those deaths are the foundation of our activism. Every meeting ends with a moment of silence for those who have gone. The idea is that these people did not die in vain; that we will act. Also, if you take someone's name off the list and they're not really dead, they don't like that. I think there are about 5,000 addicts down here. We probably had 800 active volunteers at our peak, and currently have about 400. And there are about 150 or 200 people who will at least come in and drink a cup of coffee. In addition to current or former drug users, we also have a few hundred supporting, nonvoting members.

We very consciously describe VANDU as composed of drug users and former drug users. That gives people some cover. I can stand there and say I represent VANDU and people don't know which group I'm in. It's none of their fucking business, anyway.

Chronicle: What is VANDU doing these days?

Livingston: We have several initiatives as well as a full slate of meetings. We have alley patrols that go out for two hours a day four days a week, two people together, and sometimes a street nurse, to go through the alleys and knock on hotel doors and check on people. They get $10 each. We also do hospital visits -- two people go twice a week. And there are five meetings a week. On Tuesday, we have the rock users group, where everyone is focused on what we're going to do about public rock smoking -- a safe inhalation site, perhaps? On Wednesdays, it's the crystal meth group. That's fairly new, and those people are super-marginalized. People like to pretend that meth is a low-class drug, but everybody's doing it, right? Also on Wednesday, there is the meeting of the BC Association of People on Methadone. There are 8,000 people on methadone in BC, and they need some sort of voice. On Thursday, the VANDU board meets. On Friday, it's the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, VANDU's aboriginal council. In all Canada, there are no other aboriginal health groups that are into harm reduction. Our group formed a society just so they could get some funding. We also have meetings focused on AIDS, Hep C, housing. The meetings are a way for marginalized people to begin to work their way into the organization. And all the newbies get to volunteer in the office. Most of these meetings are full. If we had the money, we could have meetings like these at three or four locations in Vancouver alone. There would be hundreds more drug users in meetings every day. They want to be engaged.

Chronicle: Is the VANDU model one that is transferable to other cities in political climes that are perhaps not so friendly as Vancouver?

Livingston: What we need is a drug user organizing school. When we make up a curriculum and a methodology, we can expand this. We need a lot more people with these sorts of skills to do drug users' groups. Drug users are creative people. If they can score drugs clandestinely day in and day out, they can do a user group. That's easy compared to trying to score drugs all day.

You can do this anywhere. Even in Vancouver, we were up against difficult dynamics, and we really started from nowhere. Every city has a place where the drug addicts go. Go there. Don't say you're going to start a drug user group. Instead, we want to get people with drug issues together to talk about those issues. This gets them thinking about their community; everyone knows somebody worse off than they are. Then you get them thinking what can we do? Find some way they can help. Maybe it's giving out safe injection kits. Whatever it is, people will jump at an opportunity to help; it brings out their good side.

It's all in persistence. You keep plodding along. You know there are 5,000 addicts in the city, and once they get past thinking you're a Christian or a cop, you can start getting somewhere. You don't know if you're going to be successful until you try a meeting a week. If no one comes, you have to ask people why no one is there. Is it the wrong place? The wrong time? And once you get a good time and place, you want to keep it the same. These people aren't carrying daytimers, so we use a lot of postering to remind people. Drug addicts are some of the busiest people on earth; they tend to get quite a bit done. They don't get days off, and they'll work you to death. It is hard to get time off because of the urgency of the situation.

-- END --
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Issue #384 -- 4/29/05

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Editorial: Pointlessness | Feature: In Civil Obedience Campaign, Hungarian Drug Users Turn Themselves In | Feature: Marijuana Research Grow Effort Heads for DEA Hearing | Feature: The North American Syringe Exchange Convention | DRCNet Interview: Ten Years of Organizing Hard Drug Users -- Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users | Announcement: DRCNet/Perry Fund Event to Feature US Rep. Jim McDermott, June 1 in Seattle | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Bad Cops II: South Texas Drug Task Force Fights Dirty | Prisons: US Inmate Population Continues to Swell, Now at 2.1 Million | Drug Czar: Walters Under Attack By Prohibitionists | Marijuana March: Global March May 7 in More Than 180 Cities | Holland: Ministers Squabble Over Cannabis -- One Calls For Legalization, Has Public Opinion on His Side | Europe: British Heroin Maintenance Program to Expand | India: Crackdown on Opium Growers Spurs Confusion, Protests in Karnataka | Weekly: This Week in History | Events: MPP Galas Next Week and the Following | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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