For Drug Users, Coalition Serves as Voice in Albany
In a borrowed room in Chelsea on a recent Monday night, 13 people sat under fluorescent lights discussing the time-honored art of lobbying and the cold calculus of political persuasion.
And for this unusual organization, the typical difficulty of being heard among the vast jumble of special interests clamoring for attention in Albany is complicated by the fact that it represents drug users, past and present.
So as the members of the New York Users Union planned a bus trip to Albany to promote hepatitis C prevention programs and regulations to protect syringe users, they discussed some of their obstacles.
“It’s almost as if society has put a stigma on people,” said a graying man named Thomas Grant, who added that he had been clean for a decade but was still viewed as suspect by some people because he contracted hepatitis while using heroin in 1980.
A woman named Sandy agreed. “Drug users are not considered victims as far as legislators go,” she said. “We did it to ourselves.”
Indeed, many people are surprised to hear that an organization exists to advance the cause of drug users, usually regarded as criminals who made bad choices rather than as citizens with legitimate grievances.
The Users Union, which members said was the only group in the country consisting of drug users, was founded in 2005 by advocates who wanted to create a platform for a constituency without electoral clout.
They were partly inspired by similar organizations in Europe, including a Dutch group known as Junkiebonden, which was formed in the early 1970s.
“We decided to band together for political power,” said George Bethos, 50, one of the founding members. “We had no voice in any of the public policies that affected us.”
Mr. Bethos said he began using heroin at 14 and witnessed firsthand the damage that the drug could do, particularly to people unaware of basic self-preservation measures. In the mid-1970s, he said, he hung out in drug dens, known as shooting galleries, on the Lower East Side where shared needles were stored in jars of water that turned bright pink from blood.
In the 1980s, Mr. Bethos, who is now in a methadone program, started one of the first unsanctioned needle exchanges in that neighborhood, parking a 1966 Lincoln Continental on Rivington or Stanton Street and distributing clean syringes from the trunk.
Mr. Bethos said he believed that all drugs should be legalized, but realized that that was unlikely to happen soon. So instead, the group has concentrated on campaigns that it thinks can have an impact.
The group, which has about 100 members who pay $24 apiece in annual dues, was one of many that lobbied against the state’s Rockefeller-era drug laws, which had long been criticized as overly harsh and were largely dismantled in 2009. On occasion, the group has organized rallies or practiced civil disobedience.
Recently, it backed a bill that would change the penal law to exempt from criminal liability the possession of syringes with drug residue by people in needle exchange programs, who are sometimes arrested despite the fact that they are authorized to carry syringes, Mr. Bethos said.
The bill passed the State Assembly last year and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. Some lawmakers who opposed the measure said they feared that it could be interpreted as condoning narcotics use.
One assemblyman who voted against the bill, Lou Tobacco, a Republican from Staten Island, said he was concerned that the bill did not clearly define “residue.”
“A bill like this could open the door to having people illicitly carry dirty needles around the city,” Mr. Tobacco said. Still, he gave the Users Union credit for aiming to educate people and help stop the spread of disease.
The group operates under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization, the New York City AIDS Housing Network, which pays the salary of a staff organizer, and is financed through foundations, donations and government grants. Its headquarters are in a small storefront in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, but members sometimes meet in the roomier Chelsea office of the Harm Reduction Coalition.
Those meetings operate as organizing seminars and information sessions. Members lament the mendacious nature of the “prison-industrial complex” or offer cautionary tales about the dangers of “cotton shots,” injections of heroin residue trapped in cotton balls used as filters, which can lead to illness.
Two days after the meeting in Chelsea, Mr. Grant was among those who boarded a bus to Albany, along with other ex-heroin users like Charlie Garone and Arnold McDonald, as well as Jill Reeves, who said she still used the drug.
A Senate vote on the needle bill had been delayed, and members of the Users Union spent several hours in the halls of the Statehouse, buttonholing legislators and asking for their support. At 4, the crew piled back into their bus and settled in for the ride back to New York.
“We’re the experts,” Ms. Reeves, 49, said during a telephone interview on the way back. “So we told the senators we should be a serious part of the debate.”
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
The New York Times