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.