I don't do this often, but I'm writing here to stump for something. I want you to take 30 seconds and go sign the Vienna Declaration, because I think it's important and I think if enough people do it, we might make a dent in our expensive, destructive drug policies. So you can do that right here. (In fact, go ahead and do that, please.) Then I want you to invite more people to sign. It's free, it's fast, it's easy.
Now. If you haven't signed, here's my spiel. The very short version is, Sane drug policy fights AIDS. The longer version is longer.
I know a couple back in Arkansas – nice folks with cute kids – who used to cook a lot of meth. They decided it wasn't the best career path once they became parents, but when they talk about those days, you get the sense that they miss the life, at least a little. They were skinny. They were productive. They turned into chainsmoking paranoiacs, but really, when your cheekbones are jutting out fetchingly and you get to clean your truck at an empty carwash at 3:30 a.m. because you're obsessive and insomniac, a smidgen of cardiovascular damage seems a low price to pay, no?
I'd sooner drink a highball of kerosene than smoke meth. But it's fascinating to me that some people disagree, and ingest a recipe that calls for hydrochloric acid. Drug preferences are personal and yet do follow some predictable trajectories. You probably scratch your itch with some socially acceptable fix – nicotine, caffeine or alcohol. You have also, guessing by the latest surveys, probably broken a law by using other drugs – marijuana, prescription drugs, mushrooms or coke. You likely did so without any overriding concern that you would be arrested, though the potential was there.
You probably haven't injected yourself with heroin, other opiates or cocaine, though worldwide there might be 16 million or so who do. People who do undertake a great deal of risk. They risk becoming zombified addicts. They risk getting sick from the fillers that dealers use to cut those drugs (I'm told baby laxative is common in heroin). They risk imprisonment, they risk physical violence, they risk hepatitis, and worse. As a group, intravenous drug users account for perhaps 10 percent of the world's 33 million HIV cases.
The risks are enormous, but most of those users are self-medicating in some fashion, just as you and I do. Only they do it to a degree many of us would call suicidal.
But it's not the same as suicide. It's reversible. People come back from heroin addictions. It happens all the time.
On Tuesday, I was at Insite, the Vancouver facility where users can shoot up under the watch of a medical staff. Europe has several safe-injection (or supervised-injection, if you prefer) facilities; Insite is the only one in North America. Now, Insite doesn't hand out drugs, so you gotta BYO. A friend of mine sent an exchange she had with her brother who wrote that “Vancouver administers opiates to its vast population of addicts” – which, though a common misconception, is pretty far from the truth. What you can get, free, is sterile paraphernalia, a working sink, a tourniquet. You're not using pothole puddlewater to cook your hit, as a professor of mine has witnessed. You're not sharing needles. You're not shooting up around people who will rape you or rob you once you're high. You're not going to die from an overdose: Insite to date has resuscitated everyone who has OD'ed there. What you do get is a clean, well-lighted place to do your business, and maybe get some medical care. And you get to go where everybody knows your name. That's important. Because when you decide you're tired of being high all the time, you can walk in and say, “I want to talk about getting clean,” which I saw a young man do on Tuesday morning. And they can connect you to social services that specialize in dealing with drug users – something not everyone in the medical or social welfare is willing to do.
Maybe, too, when you come back from addiction, you won't have shredded your veins. Maybe you won't have hep C. Maybe you won't have AIDS.
Then again, maybe you will. HIV is sexually transmitted, but it moves even quicker via dirty needles. This should concern everyone. You, I and everyone we know are six degrees from Kevin Bacon, and I think it's a fair assumption that he has had sex with a drug user. Frankly we're all in a big planetary orgy here, and at least 3 million of the people at the party have shown up with HIV only because they didn't have a clean needle.
I'm not trying to be flip. You have a stake in this, even beyond the duty to watch over the most vulnerable among us. Think about the issue without the moral baggage we bring to discussions of drug use. Don't think of Insite as a hard-drug rec room, or even as a drug treatment center. It's neither. It is much more accurately described as an infection- and violence-prevention facility.
Insite is just one way to address the big problem. The war on drugs is a fiasco. I say that in the company of such reactionary leftists as the U.S. Conference of American Mayors (“the war on drugs has failed”), former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia (“The war on drugs has failed. And it's high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies,” in the Wall Street Journal), U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerliokowske (“[I]t has not been successful”) and at least 65 percent of Americans.
So here's why the Vienna Declaration is worth a glance. It's a call by leading AIDS and public health authorities to recast drug policy to account for the massive harm that drug prohibition wreaks. It calls for science, not ideology, to drive drug policy. It has a whole slew of endorsements from organizations and scientists and Nobel laureates. It aims to carry the weight of those endorsements, including yours, to the next International AIDS Conference, in 2012, in Washington D.C. It looks for ways to keep the stigma of drugs from overriding our better judgment.
Can it shift American policy? Hell, why don't we find out?
Several soldiers were among the standbys for a mid-morning flight from Dallas to Little Rock on Thursday, and a tall, broad young National Guard call-up wound up sitting next to me in the ninth row.
“Sir, I just want to apologize upfront,” he told me. “I haven’t had a shower in four days, and I smell.”
I told him I’d been traveling myself, and that I hadn’t had a shower in a couple of days either: “Between us, we’ve got almost a week’s worth of stink.” I asked him where he was coming from and where he was headed. Afghanistan was the point of origin, and Little Rock, home, was the destination. Seven months he’d been gone. “I can’t wait to get laid,” he said.
He turned up his iPod, and all I could hear of the music was a rolling-thunder drum attack that sounded like Scandinavian death metal on meth. I pulled my hat down over my eyes and was asleep at the window before we even left the ground. A few minutes before we landed, I came to, slid up the shade and watched us soar low over the Arkansas River and then touch down. As much as Little Rock lacks, home remains home, and I thought how fine it must feel for my fellow flyer after having been at war for the better part of a year.
The flight attendant took to the intercom, reminding everyone that we were now free to use our cell phones, and thanking us for flying American Airlines, “part of the Oneworld alliance.”
The solider stiffened. “One World Alliance?” he said. “What’s that?”
I explained that it’s a consortium that lets people use their frequent flyer miles among different airlines. “I admit, it does sound kind of ominous,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “‘One World Alliance.’ Like someone else I’ll have to fight.”