November 1, 1999, Zaandam, the Netherlands
Organised by Landelijk Steunpunt Druggebruikers (LSD) & National Interest Group of Drug Users
On November 1 1999, LSD organised their fourth annual ‘Drug Users Day’.
Reported by: Theo Van Dam & Daan Van der Gouwe
In our first three years, we organised our events in Utrecht, Amsterdam, and The Hague.
They were mainly ‘national’ events for Dutch users, offering drug users the opportunity to meet and discuss topics of mutual interest with social workers, politicians and others professionals.
Drug users have found this day very valuable – and not just because it is possible to use drugs here!
At least for one day in the year, there are no people looking at you with disdain, and one feels accepted as a ‘human being’, so to speak.
Not surprisingly, this annual Drug Users day is now well known amongst both drug users and drug workers in every corner of our (small) country.
This year, reflecting both the trend towards greater European integration and the extension of LSD’s activities abroad, it was decided that this Fourth Annual day should be an international event, and therefore user groups from many other countries were invited to send representatives.
LSD applied for and received extra funding to cover some of these expenses, and so we were able to invite a number of people from other countries.
User groups from nine different countries spent the day itself in workshops discussing themes of common interest, and then joined together to have fun in a closing party, which even included a band consisting of several police officers from the ‘infamous’ Warmoesstraat police station in Amsterdam!
This report will give you an insight into the events of International Drug Users Day, November 1, as well as telling you a bit about the activities that led up to the day itself.
LSD would like to thank the Dutch Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports for their assistance, as their support made all this possible.
The Day Before
As we said earlier, this was the first time that LSD had organised an international happening.
Invitations were sent out to all the Dutch user groups or junkie-unions – and in response large delegations of users from all the cities came on the day, – as well as social workers, politicians,
and other interested parties attending.
This time, we also invited representatives from user groups in other countries.
We were very pleased that members of user groups from Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Russian Federation, Slovenia, Spain and Ireland were able to participate in our event.
The day before the meeting, the international delegates met together at the MDHG in Amsterdam, one of the oldest user groups in the Netherlands.
Also attending the meeting were a member of the Dutch Parliament and a film crew from Dutch Breakfast TV.
At this meeting, members of LSD explained to the delegates how their organisation had started, and why it had been set up in the first place.
They outlined the aims and objectives of their project and described the activities of the organisation. In particular, they discussed their reasons for holding an annual Drug Users Day.
After this, some informal discussions took place – and finally delegates were briefed on the quality and availability of various local drugs, as well as on local ‘user etiquette’.
A general misconception among tourists is that all drugs are legal in the Netherlands and that one can smoke or shoot up dope everywhere without any problems.
Unfortunately, many people still find out ‘the hard way’ that this is not true.
LSD then spoke about the development of current Dutch drug policy and talked about the general trend amongst local drug users to inject less and smoke (or ‘chase’) their dope much more.
Finally, a friendly warning was given to the international delegates about the difference in the quality of dope in Holland in comparison to other countries, and the unpleasant consequences
that this could have for unwary users.
The International Drug Users Day 1999
The 1999 Drug User day took place at a concert hall in Zaandam not far from Amsterdam – where usually any drug use other than cannabis is prohibited.
LSD took responsibility for providing and managing a safe-injection room, which was located in a quiet corner of the building.
Necessary items such as clean needles, ascorbic acid and sterile water were freely available there.
In the main area, delegates were allowed to smoke dope.
Because the policy was to keep drug-using ‘indoors’, there were no complaints about the event
from the surrounding neighbourhood.
Although drug use was permitted during the conference, delegates were successfully encouraged to postpone their drug use until the party later in the day – as there was some work to do first!
Approximately 250 delegates attended the formal conference event. Workshops were held simultaneously in three different locations in the building.
It was agreed that each of the countries present would facilitate a workshop.
The conference was held in English, as this was the most common shared language amongst delegates. However, this was sometimes difficult as most delegates did not speak English as their native language, and some had problems.
However- everyone seemed to feel that it all worked out well in the end.
Here is a short overview of the main topics that were discussed in the various workshops.
Workshop Belgium by Tonny (BAD)
The workshop was about the setting-up of user groups in Antwerp, and what they have already achieved in less than a year.
BAD started early 1999 as a result of a peer education project.
The Flemish policy on drug users has always been one of repression and non-acceptance.
This has lead to overcrowded prisons, an increase of drug related harm, and in particular, deteriorating health for many drug users.
BAD wants to change this all, but as it is the case in many other countries, drug users in Belgium are a controversial topic of discussion.
Rarely do policymakers speak with us.
Our group meets weekly and is being supported by Antwerp outreach teams and the Free Clinic.
They have started interviewing about 100 drug users in Antwerp to find out what services they feel should be available.
BAD took the results of this survey to the local authorities and together we discussed these things.
As a direct result of this initiative, BAD has now joined a regular meeting attended by all the ’stakeholders’ (e.g. doctors, health workers etc.), who determine Antwerp’s drug policy, and so now we can start to influence policy development.
In fact, recent Flemish drug policy does seems to be evolving and becoming a bit less repressive, as there are now talks underway about providing users with safe injection rooms.
BAD is also involved in the set-up of Needle Exchange in Antwerp.
Workshop Germany by Astrid (JES Rhein-Main)
Astrid kicked off her presentation with a general talk on JES (which stands for “Junkies, Ex-Junkies and People on scripts”), an organisation that is similar in many ways to ASUD in France or LSD in the Netherlands.
JES Germany consists of about forty local user groups, loosely organised under an umbrella organsation in Berlin.
This ‘umbrella’ is represented by four official speakers, who are elected by the annual general assembly of JES, and (until recently) a paid co-ordinator, who organised seminars and courses for users about political work.
The workshop discussed the problems presently facing JES – and in particular, the decision by Deutsche Aids Hilfe (who paid for the co-ordinator of the German network), that they could no longer fund this post.
The group expects that the main impact of this decision will be some organisational problems, but they are confident that they will be able to manage such problems if they occur.
Astrid and Monika also spoke about their own organisation in Frankfurt – JES Rhein-Main.
Besides their involvement in JES Rhein-Main, Monika and Astrid also produce JuBaz (Junkfurther Ballergazette), a magazine about drug use for drug users that has been published for more than 10 years now!
Workers with JuBaz get professional training, and there is magasine policy of ‘no censorship’.
This makes the magazine truly independent, despite the fact that it is financed by a local drug help association.
Workshop United Kingdom by Chris (National Network of Drug Users)
Chris facilitated a workshop on political lobbying, and talked about effective ways to put pressure on (local) authorities in order to achieve what we want.
Because the war on drugs is being fought at many frontiers, we must organise ourselves on as many fronts as possible.
Uniting as many opponents to prohibition as possible and formulating common goals is particularly important, as this will give us the ability to lobby politicians more effectively.
One problem that we face is that many politicians are prepared to support a more liberal drugs policy in private, but dare not say this in public.
Organising events like this is an important way to set up a solid political lobby and to give a voice to those who suffer most from present drug policy.
Finally, Chris felt that there were two factors that were in our favour.
At a time when politicians are desperate to reduce government spending, the war on drugs is extremely expensive!
He also stated that the rise of the Internet, with its ability to link people together, may very well be the most powerful weapon we have at present in the war on the ‘War on Drugs’.
Workshop France by Gilles (ASUD)
ASUD is a nation-wide network of user groups in France.
Their speaker, Gilles, put forward a rather gloomy image of life as a drug user in France nowadays.
It seems that some users have deliberately allowed themselves to become infected with HIV in order to get access to treatment with morphine-sulphate (Moscontin/Skenan) Also many amputations occur amongst drug users as a result of abscesses.
There are not many substitution programmes yet in France, and the ones that do exist (Methadone, buprenorphine) don’t give the users what they want, and so in order to get a buzz, many users end up injecting these substances, and by doing so risk abscesses or worse.
Also some users take large quantities of (extra-) strong beer in order to get a buzz.
This is all a result of the failure of current substitution programmes to meet the needs of drug users.
Another important part of ASUD’s work is fighting for the right to pleasure!
Contrary to the opinion of many drug professionals, most drug users take drugs not because they are unhappy, or have had a bad childhood, but because it is fun and pleasurable!
Harm reduction can only succeed when the authorities take this basic fact into consideration – but current drugs policy in France still prohibits needle exchange, or the testing of pills etc. for users.
Another problem ASUD faces, when publishing their regular magazine for drug users, is that French law expressly forbids them to publish pro-drug opinions and speak too openly about legalisation and related subjects.
Workshop Spain by Catalan drug User s Network
The Spanish representative also described the current situation in their country, and in particular, in the Catalan region of Spain.
There is a drop in centre, a needle exchange, and an outreach team working in Catalina, but this all has only just started.
The same is true for the user group.
They meet on a regular basis, and they also have a (sort of) Drug Users day that is held in December.
The distribution of methadone in Catalonia was discussed, and in particular, the efforts which the group has made to try to improve this facility.
The Users Network constantly put pressure on the service by informing them how and why the service should improve, and this seems to be very successful.
Part two OF REPORT
Workshop Slovenia by Vera, Dragica, Dare
The Slovene delegation spoke about the collaboration in Slovenia between user groups and the University, as well as making some general remarks about drug use in Slovenia.
For a couple of years now, a harm reduction-based approach has been developed in Slovenia, albeit only in Ljubljana and Koper.
There are some active outreach workers who are active, and it is possible to exchange needles and syringes, but that’s about it.
However, Slovenia has found ways to get European money for various programmes and researches.
Therefore a lot of research has recently started, examining different aspects of drug use and related matters.
But what is particularly interesting about these initiatives is that drug users themselves are involved in all aspects of these studies and programmes.
In fact, drug users even provide training for our social workers about the daily life of a user in Slovenia!
Workshop Russian Federation by Alec and Vitalec (MSF-H Harm Reduction Unit) (plenary)
Alec and Vitalec from Moscow facilitated a ‘plenary’ session in which they described what it is like being a drug user in Russia, especially in Moscow.
Russia has a very repressive policy towards drug use and drug users.
As we see elsewhere, this kind of policy often leads to bad health conditions – and recently a serious HIB epidemic broke out.
Becoming infected with HIV/ Hepatitis is very easy, as there are very strong penalties on the possession of needles.
This has led to massive sharing of needles, which in turn has lead to many users contracting infections of many kinds.
There are some needle exchange facilities, but such work is forced ‘underground’ by current drugs policy, and therefore such services only reaches a minority of drug users.
Detoxification is the only ‘treatment’ available, and there are no methadone programmes available, and there are no user groups at all.
However, for the last two years there has been an outreach team active on the streets of Moscow.
They reach a lot of users and provide them with relevant information.
In the near future, the team will start working on relationships with the police, in order to persuade them to change their opinions on drug use and drug users.
Step by step, we are trying to make it possible for drug users to live like other civilians with the same rights and the same access to care.
Another important topic in the near future is to help drug users to start their own user organisations.
At the moment it is not possible to speak up as a drug user without facing all kinds of punishments.
Therefore, a proper drug-user organisation is very necessary.
Workshop Basements by Liesbeth
A final short session was held about a Dutch model of safe rooms, called the ‘Basement’.
There are at present four such ‘Basements’, and they are all located in Rotterdam and run mainly by dealers.
Such initiatives appear to be a cheap and safe alternative to more orthodox ‘legal’ safe injecting rooms.
In these rooms it is allowed to use drugs, although injection is not allowed.
The concept is as follows: a dealer rents a location and turns it into a sort of ‘bar’.
Behind the bar, we find a dealer dealing cocaine and heroin, but also selling fruit juices and other such refreshments.
Agreements are made with neighbourhood and local authorities.
If the dealer keeps his place clean and if the Basement does not cause harm, they will allow it to continue.
In the actual basement, which is located downstairs; users are allowed to use their dope.
A doorman looks after the general atmosphere, and ensures that users do not hang about outside when leaving the building etc.
The co-operation that has been needed between these Basement projects and the police has led to some interesting discussions!
As in the preceding 3 years, this year the Dr. Alderwright-trophy was again awarded to the initiative, individual, or organisation which Dutch user groups feel have been the most “user-friendly”.
The award itself is named after the person who is supposed to have invented heroin – Dr. Alder Wright.
The trophy is becoming well known in Dutch drug services, and the winner often takes advantage of the trophy by seeking extra publicity (and money) for their award winning initiative.
This year, the prize went to the town of Alkmaar – to Tilly Balk and her project called” Vrouwen Solidair”.
Tilly, (who is known as Aunt Tilly in Alkmaar), has been working with marginalized groups in her local area since 1981, and all on a voluntarily basis.
Her activities come right from the heart, and Tilly and her colleagues have helped many people with basic needs and more.
Tilly herself said that she does not do anything special – she is just being human.
She was in tears when she received the trophy.
After a meal of Chinese/Indonesian food the Dow Jones Band went on stage and played like animals.
Two members of the band are police officers working at Amsterdam’s Warmoesstraat police station, (the most infamous police station that we have in the Netherlands).
The band played until ten, and by that that the majority of visitors already had left.
Although we live in a small country, it can still take several hours for some to get home.
Follow up programme
Following the drug user day, a number of people took advantage of their stay in Holland to see some of the interesting initiatives currently underway in the Netherlands.
Stichting Drugpunt Den Haag is a user group that has managed to get substantial funding from their local authority, which has made it possible to pay the workers for their work.
Our delegates from Spain, UK, France and Slovenia met with representatives of the local authorities who work with Drugpunt, and this turned out to be a very interesting meeting, which talked about mutual collaboration, and the influence Drugpunt has had on local politics.
The Spanish and Russians also went to Rotterdam, where, of course, they visited St. Pauls Church. In this church there are safe rooms, and many marginalized people practically live there.
Also delegates visited the ‘Basements’ mentioned above, but it is hard to give an impression of these places, as they are very unique.
The day closed with a dinner, which was paid for by the dealer of the Basements!
The Spanish delegates clearly couldn’t get enough of our country – so they also went to Zwolle and visited a service centre for drug users, and afterwards went to a tourist site called Giethoorn.
The first International Drug Users Day 1999 turned out to be very successful.
A lot of information was shared between the various user groups, and many groups made commitments to keep in contact with each other.
Fortunately, most groups now have access to Internet, which makes collaboration easier than ever before.
And, if the funding can be found, it is clear that many delegates would like to meet again at the upcoming Harm reduction Conference in Jersey in April 2000.
Theo van Dam
Daan van der Gouwe
(with many thanks to Bill Nelles who made the report readable in English)