This Norwegian Man's UN Speech About People Who Use Drugs Is Extraordinary

Apr 01 2016

This Norwegian Man’s UN Speech About People Who Use Drugs Is Extraordinary

April 1st, 2016

[The following is adapted from a speech delivered remotely to the CND/UNGASS conference on the topic of peer/professional cooperation in the drug field hosted by the Finnish embassy at the UN building in Vienna by Norwegian journalist and activist Sturla Haugsgjerd.]

My name is Sturla and I’m a drug addict. Because I am an addict, I do not represent most people who use drugs. The vast majority of people who use drugs don’t know what the inside of a rehabilitation center looks like: Most people who use drugs choose to enjoy mind-­altering substances besides alcohol without ever needing treatment. They’re doctors, lawyers, politicians, dentists and truck drivers. Far from everyone who uses drugs does so in a compulsory manner, just as far from everyone who enjoys alcohol are alcoholics. I, on the other hand, am seen by some as a sick person because I use drugs more regularly and suffer bigger consequences than most people as a result of my use. By others I am seen as a criminal.

In Indonesia, the authorities would throw me in jail and torture me. In Russia, I would be denied clean needles. In some countries, like my home country Norway, if I’m lucky I could be seen as a patient, but still treated like a criminal—and sometimes forced to receive treatment under threat of imprisonment if I fail a drug test.

In Mexico, I’m in double jeopardy: As a drug user I am unwanted, and as an activist I’m seen as a threat to the government, who want to maintain the status quo in drug policy. However I am happy that today, here in Vienna in this UNGASS hearing, I am being seen by you as I see myself—not as an addict, but as an asset, and a resource.

Because that’s what I am. In fact, as a regular substance user, I have to be resourceful. Drop me off at any city center without a credit card or a cell phone, and I will be able to get ahold of drugs or money to buy the drugs. It won’t matter if I am in Moscow or Mexico City. Meth, marijuana or money. I will get it, no matter what.

This is the daily reality for the 7,000 to 11,000 of my fellow Norwegian regular substance users in my home city, and millions like us in other cities around the world.

Even if we are harassed, chased by police, stigmatized and avoided during most of our waking hours, we are constantly able to obtain said money and drugs. This is quite telling of our potential. If only governments knew how to harness it.

Of the 250 million people using mind-­altering substances other than alcohol, approximately 10 percent or 25 million people are, like me, using drugs regularly and to such a degree that it’s viewed by some as a disease.

In fact, this small minority alone represents a thousand times more people than the manpower it took to build the Great Pyramid of Giza. Not putting us to better use constitutes an enormous waste of energy.

I imagine a future wherein our energy could be spent in another manner. All the calories spent escaping police, the hours in jail, the brainpower wasted on preparing for the next time we score drugs, could be put to much better use.

Open any newspaper, any day of the week. You will immediately notice that the global community is facing a multitude of challenges. War and terror in Syria. Increasing migration. Global warming. Economic crisis. And sinking oil prices. Even wealthy states such as Norway are increasingly feeling the pressure. No one is unaffected.

The challenges we are facing are huge. And similar to challenges faced in other times and places throughout human history. The Wall Street Crash of 1929. The World Wars. Just as we did back then, facing the realization that the War on Drugs has been a complete failure, we need to engage as many as possible to solve the tasks at hand. During the Second World War, American women had to contribute to a much larger degree—so that the US could handle the fight against fascism. This, in turn, increased the momentum for women’s liberation movements around the world.

The time has now come for us, the drug users, to demand our rights. Not only to receive according to our needs, but also to contribute according to our ability. This is why we say, “Nothing about us, without us!”

But I no longer think this is sufficient. Rather, I would want to say: “You are nothing without us!”

Because the fact of the matter is, we do not only represent the homeless, the sick or those with problematic drug use; we are your children, your parents, your brothers or your sisters; we serve your food, we build your houses, we are teachers, office clerks, deputy managers and art directors. Some of us may even be politicians—UN officials sitting in this very room or even the next president of the United States. Ninety percent of us do not even have problematic drug use at all. We are everywhere, and without us, society will come to a halt. Still we are treated as second-rate human beings in many respects. Why? Because we are criminalized and stigmatized just because we inject, snort and sniff mind-­altering substances into our own bodies.

As a representative of this group, I’m very happy to be here in Mexico with fellow activists, though at the same time I’m sad that I wasn’t able to join you in Vienna. My Mexican friends have told me about the difficult situation their country is facing. They are still trying to recover from a nonsensical war on drugs that has disastrously resulted in 60,000 violent deaths including the deaths of innocent civilians and children.

Maybe we can learn from their experience that drugs can’t be fought with prohibition and violence. Fire will not extinguish fire. The polarization of Mexico has divided society and organized criminals have achieved what they wanted: a weak civil society instead of a unified mass opposing the wrongdoings. This provides a fertile soil, allowing corruption to keep growing into every corner of society. But we have to remember that the drugs themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is the violence that results from the profit there is to be made by monopolizing them. My fellow Mexican brothers and sisters want to end this. They are determined to find new ways to fight against criminals, but not by enforcing prohibition or deploying the army. Instead they want to recognize that any individual has the right to exercise their liberty of choice and at the same time live in harmony with everyone else. If we had explored better options for regulating the vast market for drugs, such as legalization and decriminalization, maybe Mexicans today wouldn’t be mourning their loved ones.

The reality here is simple: Drug cartels want to protect their business at any cost, even if that means killing innocent people—and they do so with impunity because they have the money to bribe politicians. Cartels don’t fear arms. What they fear is an intelligent and mature society. Let’s start building it. And let drug users like me and all the other people who use drugs in one way or another be at the forefront of the process of shaping such a society.

The challenges we face in the decades to come are great, and if we were to continue to discriminate and exclude people who are either enjoying or struggling with illegal substances, our societies will continue to wage wars against themselves and won’t be able to meet said challenges wholeheartedly. We—the people using drugs—ought to be a part of building a sustainable future. Use us!

In 12-­step programs, a saying goes: “The therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel.” But I am convinced we people who use drugs can help each other and help others in need. Even though many of us struggle in our day-to-­day lives, that doesn’t mean that we are indifferent, that we do not care, nor does it mean that we are incapable of giving those in need a helping hand.

Whether it’s the less fortunate families entering our countries seeking a better life for themselves, the elderly who have no one to talk to, or the kids being bullied in school for not having the right clothes to wear, I’m confident that we can be of assistance.

Let us keep our jobs, let us contribute, and use our capabilities—if the work that we do is good enough, why should the substance in our blood be a hindrance?

In 1998, the last time the UN held a conference on drugs, you told us “A drug free world. We can do it.” We spent 20 years trying to explain that it isn’t possible. We listened to you, even though we knew you were wrong. Now it’s time for you to return the favor and listen to our demand: Drugs, we can do them! And still be an integral part of the free world—precisely because we live in a free world!

We need to stop demanding that people are drug ­free before being admitted into society as fully worthy members, and accept that some will always feel the urge to alter their consciousness with substances.

Sturla Haugsgjerd is a Norwegian journalist and activist.

  • Signe Wiik

    Respect & love – we need more people like Sturla.

  • Ole Jørgen Lygren

    This i,s why the world now have to decriminalize drugs and drug use , Really a good speak by Sturla . Let,s all work for a better world .

  • Lorraine Perici

    Brilliant ……Hit the nail right on the head well done.

  • April Smith

    Beautiful and true.

  • Gue2

    Fight Club referance.

    Hit the nail

  • Joe Minella

    Very well said. Thank you, Sturla. The fraudulent “war” on drugs has done an incredible amount of damage around the world, and continues to do so daily. Vow for this election year: No more drug warriors. Not one vote, not one penny.

  • Lee Collingham

    You n me both. Excellent piece. Couldn’t agree more

    • Ole Jørgen Lygren

      I,m Really happy thath Sturla is going to UNGASS these days .

  • Lee Collingham

    How do I share this

    • Adrian1949

      Thank you for sharing this!

    • Signe Wiik

      I sais ” share ” right next to reply , Lee. #happy420

  • Bordersane

    Fantastic speech. I hope it gets the positive attention it deserves.

  • Very nice and intelligent words. But there is a egocentric aspect to the whole issue. Chronic ill persons and dirt poor people get less support than drug addicts. Ask yourself is that right?

    I would rather see resources used for said group before drug addicts. You have a choice and I have choice most of the time, most people can drink a glass of vine or smoke a joint without problems. But when you start amphetamine cocain or heroin you are hard core and don’t care about people at all. Most people get into real problems with these drugs and that destroyers families and societies. War on drugs is stupid agree, but be smart about your drug use ass well! Your behavior changes with drug use in so many unhealthy ways and you may not even be aware of it.

    • Fredrik Johansen

      You obviously missed the whole point of Sturla’s speech.

      He’s not asking for a handout. He’s offering his help.

      He’s not calling out for more resources to be spent on drug users. He’s complaining that his ilk is stopped from contributing to society because they are criminalized and prosecuted.

      And finally, your whole “Your behavior changes with drug use in so many unhealthy ways and you may not even be aware of it” line is the epitome of backwards thinking, as Sturla points out you most definitely interact with several people every day that are using drugs without your knowledge, and the majority of drug users do so without problems.

      All problems related to drugs, stems from it’s criminalization and the infantile “war” waged against substances.

      End the war, and society will flourish. It really is that simple, and we only need to look to countries like Switzerland for proof, where a complete legalization has led to less drug use, less overdoses and less drug related crime.

      • And you my good man did not get my point. Yes he want’s to help, all good. But status quo is that there are more benefits for drug addicts then for poor people…
        No, absolutely not all problems comes from criminalization, I have experience. Did I not say I find war on drugs stupid?

        • Fredrik Johansen

          How are you not getting that he is actually offering to help these poor people?

    • Spring-Heeled Jim

      I find it very interesting that you state” but when you start amphetamine, cocaine or heroin you are hard core and don’t care about people at all.” , really? So, all of the children who grew up in the 90’s when Big Pharma introduced amphetamines to an entire generation of now adults to treat their ADHD disorder didn’t give a crap about anyone but themselves, or was it their parents? Once again, that statement proves you understand very little as to why people use drugs in the first place. Do you think there is a single person out there who wakes up one day and says, “I want to be hard core today, and start destroying my relationships”? Hell NO!

      • And that was not twisting words, putting words i mouth? Aggressive fuck!
        This world is full of ego-tripping…

      • Helen Bach

        Who wants to get high in a room full of junkies? Not me!

    • Maurice Dutton

      No its not Neo. If you look at Portugal, they now spend the 90% that they see from law enforcement on social programmes for people who need the care. just because some one is on hard times does not mean that hey are any less human & all kindness & consideration should be given. Sometime random acts of kindness can go a long way to show we are a compassionate society. However I cannot agree with the statement regarding substance use you don’t care at all. I think that most people whether caught in a spiral of substance use or not are basically good, kind & caring. Its how most of us are hard wired.

      • Yes it is Maurice. Face the world like real man or woman, it takes courage to be clean!

        • Maurice Dutton

          By that you are implying that people who are not clean are not courageous. I find both your choice of words & your discourse to be well meaning but incorrect. Firstly by using the word clean as a reference implies some one is dirty (tainted or impure) not the word i would choose. Every day all over the world very courageous people are getting to say that enough is enough. I would like to continue this dialogue with you but I ask you choose your words better or people will turn them on you. I won’t I will just stop communicating but I ask you re-read your comments before hitting send.If all it took was courage to stay sober we would have medal pinning ceremonies every where.

    • Signe Wiik

      Most addicted people are both chronicly ill and dirt poor, so it is more or less the same group of people. Or do you think that if one is ill , poor & addicted , one does not deserve the same help as those who are just ill and poor ? Only 10 – 20 % of people that take drugs are getting into real problems, which means that 80 % lives normal lifes. Or havent you listened at all to the speach that Sturla held ?

      • God forbid, I argue that here is egocentric point to drug use, I must be mad

    • My behaviour changes when people make comments that are unevidenced and untrue. And if we want to talk about people with significant illnesses then lets talk about restrictions on medications that some chronically ill people need, and how the drug war has affected them. 75% of the world are restricted from access to morphine because heroin is illegal and the policy is open to interpretation. Any future research around possible other medications that may be of benefit to the chronically ill will also be restricted due to an unworkable psychoactive substances bill (UK) and cannabis look at the medicinal qualities there? Sativex is available on NHS in UK for MS but try getting a prescription for it? It’s nigh on impossible!!
      ‘Dirt poor people’ are being subject to cuts and austerity measures are killing the community, this results in poverty, homelessness, poor health, mortality rates increase, suicide, etc not seeing any support for them at the minute, only more cuts based on a false economic lie, just another vulnerable group under attack due to punitive policies, but, these underlying issues are the exact same reasons that the majority of individuals turn to substances to self medicate, so really and truly the underlying issues here that need addressed are similar.
      As for having a choice, there are a huge amount of individuals out there who are prescribed medications without being armed with the facts about what they are, or the potential for addiction, for example tramadol. fentanyl (pain’killer’) Oxycodone, MST. the list is exhaustive, the response is minimal and restrictive. Prohibition and punitive laws around drugs has crossed the line into human rights abuse, hasn’t achieved any of the outcomes it was set out to achieve, is the most costly approach to dealing with the issue and has failed abysmally. It’s the longest war in history and sadly the one that has the most fatalities under it’s belt. And it continues under such bullshit lies as ‘promoting a safer future for our children’ another lie.
      We take drugs to change the way we feel, pure and simple, inflict pain and we seek painkillers, pure and simple, vilify and demonise and we become isolated and struggle to get proper access to medications and support so we seek alternative solutions to medicate, pure and simple, before you comment do your research, pure and simple. #ProhibitionKills you can’t get more chronically ill than that.

      • I think you got me wrong. You don’t have to shot with a cannon. I have experienced plenty hardcore shit, I cut alcohol, tobacco and cannabis and did not feel the urge to injecting a needle with heroin. Guess what? It was a choice, and I feel plenty better 🙂
        I think Portugal did a great thing.
        But I also think people get more fucked up on alcohol, drugs or whatever than they like to admit…

  • Adrian1949

    Well said Sturia. Some years ago I ran a drugs clinic in London. It was based on the fact that addicts are people too and we prescribed sufficient drugs for people to keep off the streets and for long enough for our patients to reorganise their lives if possible. I saw hardened criminals stabilise on maintenance treatment. The crime recidivism rate went down to about 3%, they became healthy again. Even those who were HIV/AIDS positive showed an improvement in weight and T4 (White cell counts). I even employed a small number of drug users in the office and to counsel patients and they did brilliantly. Others were able to carry on with their careers which included dentists, a couple of social workers and people in other professions and trades. Unfortunately this was in a country where prohibition and the Drug War was rife and my clinic was closed down and I was struck off the medical register, as were many other similar doctors. The consequences were staggering. One in ten were dead within two years, others ended up in prison and health problems appeared again. One young woman lost her leg through medical neglect. I know and can prove you are right but the prohibitionist have and probably will have the upper hand for a long time. They are not politicians but thugs. They cannot understand how wrong they are because they are ignorant of consequences and live in a self righteous world of their own. Some think they have a God on their side and are acting for and on behalf of this God but what they are doing is provoking violence and massacre.

    • James DuMouchel

      Right on, Daddy-o! I agree with your negative opinion of our counter-productive drug war. Until the general population understands that use of ANY dangerous drug is made more severe by its prohibition, we will continue to piss, moan, and cry, but the situation will not improve.

    • bitrat

      Look at the attrition rate here in the US today – it’s insane, even with Narcan kits being available

  • Maurice Dutton

    Some years ago in far north Queensland the then government brought in a dedicated man with psychiatric credentials to control its Alcohol Tobacco & Other Drugs (ATODS) clinic. Within a year there were documented cases of suicide by people he has treated very badly. They then moved his clinic from Cooktown to Cairns with the same result until one woman stood her ground. She was only five foot tall but knew her rites & after calling this mans bluff & writing to expose what was going on he was sidelined & now doctors in the here are far more compassionate. that little woman is my wife & mother of my children.

    • Signe Wiik

      U must be so proud of her :)) #stoptheharm

      • Maurice Dutton

        Yes and as kitsch as it sounds love the little woman to bits

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  • Awesome speech Sturla Haugsgjerd, you rocks.

  • malcolmkyle

    Thank you!

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  • This is an amazing testimony and highlights a number if key points that firmly and clearly show that current policy is nothing more than a restrictive hindrance that supports enforced recovery, detention, disrespect for hunan and civil rights, restriction to sterile medical equipment and medications, torture and, with an inhumane rise if 35% in drug related executions, murder.All stemming from a racially motivated declaration of War on a list of inanimate substances. All government endorsed, politically motivated and supported by an impossible aspiration at United Nations level. The outcomes of this extended war have reached such a point that they, in most, totally contradict the aims and objectives, principles and mission statements of the UN. Who, it looks like are going to stand by their convictions and continue to push for a drug free world!!??! I totally agree with all that Sturla says, and especially like the explanation as to being an addict when the majority of those who use substances are not. Sadly all drug use seems to be abuse, clarity between dependence and addiction is faded, and prohibition never has and never will achieve anything other than, more hospitalisation, Increased risk, new lines in designer drugs, more crime, etc,etc. And hence more prohibitive measures, . .Blanket policies that are designed with the aim of a drug free world and a basis of abstinence as the only acceptable end result, is a dangerous angle to adapt, marked increase in drug related deaths….coincidence…. I don’t thing so. With 20% of PWUD’s being classed as being problematic, by definition, that then leaves 80% who are nit problematic but do need a little now now and again, and would rather take their chances Tha present at a servi than more significant damage .

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  • kay ledford

    Well said indeed. here in the usa we are treated so badly if caught that IT CAN EASILY turn a happy recreational user into a bitter hard core addict. Bless you Sturla

  • veronica smith

    Beautifully put!

  • Jazmine Russell

    I never imagined the day that an addict would speak to the UN.
    It seems extraordinary to me that an addict was considered to have an opinion that is useful.
    We have come along way from being one of the worst members in a society.
    Being regarded that a choice was made when remaining an addict.
    Social attitudes towards mental health illness and substance addiction has shifted in Australian society with effort and public awareness but not so much with IV herion use.
    Still high levels of shame attached to having that history.
    As an addict my life is going to be no less than colourful.
    However, sadly,
    I am the sole owner of a business that employs 5 people.
    It has so for over a decade.
    1 employee is an addict and their first clean job.
    I pay and collect more tax than an most individuals will ever.
    In despite of this
    Too often
    I am knows as ” used to be herion user” or my favourite derogatory name/term
    She was a junky. Forced into rehab. Went to NA.
    Shame is the biggest problem.
    Good on you for creating intelligent public awareness.
    It takes strengths.

  • Sturla has without a doubt spoken for many here, many who are not in a position to be heard. A true voice for the voiceless. The sentiment behind his words resonate with myself and practically every community member who experiences the shame and degradation imposed by the ignorance of others. The shame, in my opinion, lay firmly with those whose knowledge and understanding goes no further than a headline in some unfounded propaganda fueled media headline, and fails to see the human being beyond the ‘addict’ or whatever other name they can come up with in an attempt to segregate my community. Every ‘addict’ is #SomeonesDaughterSomeonesSon with a name, perhaps taking some time to find out my name and me story before you influence others about my lifestyle, one that you do not understand but are quick to condemn.

    I sleep, I eat, I laugh, I cry, I bleed, and, I die…. Just like you, and yet because you have a different view or belief to me, I’m different?

    In condemning me you are contradicting you desired outcome because, if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem. It’s simple.

    So again, well done Sturla, well said, very eloquently put and I have no doubt will be posted, reposted and quoted on many platforms, as a testimony for a victimised, vilified and demonised global community. Namaste. 😉

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