Hi, I received a comment from Joe (hi Joe!) who said he was writing an aricle on why Britain needs a drug user union and could we help? Well, it happens to be good timing Joe, because it is a discussion on many peoples lips – how to unify and strength the voice of the drug user in the UK enabling it to become more effective addressing issues that routinely affect the lives of drug users. For England however, it is even more pertinent as we are currently adrift in what might be a diverse and eclectic drug user movement, but it is one without a unified voice, or indeed a mechanism to sift and reflect back through the real concerns of the drug using community at large. So what do we do? Well, we can start by answering Joe’s question. Do we need a drug user union in the UK? (Note: this is pitched at a newcomers look into the drug user union movement so does not go in depth into some of the issues that are bubbling away for the movement).
We do need a drug user union in the UK, just like they do in many other parts of the world. Whilst a trade union’s primary role is to represent their members on employment issues, a drug user union has often emerged in a country to focus on issues affecting drug users in treatment. And just like a workers union would fight for better pay and working conditions, a drug users union focuses at least half of their energy on ensuring drug users in treatment get treated fairly, humanely, and equally – like anyone else who is a consumer of a health service.
Historically and no different from many other countries, drug treatment in the UK has varied widely in its ability to reflect the needs of its client group and has often been modelled on extremely punitive, isolating and demoralising approaches to treating drug use. The most widely used approach has always been the ‘Carrot and Stick’ model, where users are rewarded with privileges for compliance. This often means permitting take home doses of methadone if users choose to ‘get with the programme’ and show it by presenting no positive urine samples. The Carrot.
The stick happens when users are punished punitively when they ‘fail’. This has varied from the inexplicable; a reduction in ones prescription (just when they are showing they perhaps need an increase) to the common; drink your methadone supervised -which can mean rather humiliatingly drinking it at the chemist in front of everybody (including your children’s friends parents). But anyone who fully understands drug dependence in all its complexity, will know that punishments make no hay when it comes to the decision, or the overwhelming need to use drugs. In fact punishments often simply isolate the person further and drive them deeper into their dependence/addiction. People become resentful, unable to confide in the people who are supposed to be supporting them, and simply lose the resources, the motivation and the knowledge about how to make the changes they wanted to when they started the programme.
Twenty years ago when ‘user involvement started in the UK, we were coming out of the dark ages in terms of drug treatment. Today, with a high degree of user involvement around the country, things have been much better for the average drug user in treatment. But success in the UK has been patchy to say the least, and todays political ideology that directs the funding wand has caused not only cut backs in drug treatment but has created a whole series of new problems, problems which are ripe for a drug user union to tackle.
The UK needs independent union/s for drug users simply because they must have an independent voice in their treatment which affects, like a work or a trade union, a huge part of ones daily life. Much of todays user involvement is now suffering from the left turn it took many years ago to follow the money (and sometimes the support as well, both are understandable to some degree) and get into bed with the same health authorities they needed to have clear heads about. This has not only influenced some of the decisions such groups have made, sometimes at the expense of their communities, but has now left them defenseless to big budget cuts in the health service, money which is no longer ring-fenced to protect drug treatment. Drug User Groups that have spent years working, often for no pay, sometimes doing or supporting much of the work of professionals, have, at the stroke of a pen, been vanquished. Thanks for all the work mate, but seeya later.
Perhaps if we had set up as unions, even to the extent where users who wanted to join could pay their dues with the knowledge that they were getting something for their money; positive change, we would have a strong lead and vision for the way we want drug treatment to go in this country, a direction which is centred around the needs of the client, not the government, and not the key-worker or consultant. The client who is, after all supporting a massive industry of jobs, careers and reputations.
But drug user unions have a much bigger part to play in civil society. Unions can offer educational, lifelong learning and training opportunities to their members, just like real unions.
But drug user unions have a much bigger part to play in civil society. Unions can offer educational, lifelong learning and training opportunities to their members, just like real unions. Historically, unions have not only negotiated for and championed better workplace rights with employers but for a better deal for working people in the wider world. Having battled to extend the right to vote, it was the unions that created a political party that working people could vote for – the Labour Party. It is perfectly possible, as is reflected in perhaps one of the world’s most brilliant Drug User Unions, The Swedish User Union, for drug users to become directly influential in a country’s national politics; becoming to Go To organisation on drug related issues: Nothing About Us Without Us – the slogan for the drug user movement.
So yes, the collected strength and political ability of the English user movement is perhaps at a bit of a crossroads, or on a cliff edge, or even a sinking boat. It has only to look to its brethren in Scotland and Ireland (north and south) to see shining examples of cohesive and effective partnership working and union values, forging better and more humane drug policies in various sectors like health, criminal justice, treatment etc. But the space is empty for a unified user voice in England, the seat is up, the pantry littered with almosts and nearlies. Yet the values of a drug user union are urgently needed today. For those drug users still struggling with substandard or punitive treatment, poor engagement opportunities, or one size fits all care, it is just as much-needed for the society we live in, the drug policies that desperately need our thoughts, creativity and input, the solutions to community drug issues that only we as drug users can really pinpoint and tackle effectively. But that’s not all. What about unions at work?
All the unpaid hours we do to better our communities as harm reduction and recovery workers, all the glass ceilings we encounter despite our enormous skill and ability. Indeed Canada has recently ensured its harm reduction workers have been able to come together under a union banner as the Harm Reduction Workers Union, a really marvellous idea that is also primed as a template for other countries to adopt. And while history tells us that England, indeed Britain, has always been a rather tribal country, with tribal interests and cultures that still affect the way shires and counties do things, it will be basic union values that are able to touch a common core through all that diversity, and hopefully, bring us home to a unified drug user movement. A movement that is solid and secure with our UK brethren, allied in defence of ever more humane drug policies for our societies. And a vision of innovative and responsive drug treatment that is driven forward by equally by ex/current drug users and a diverse orchestra of dedicated others forever fine tuning our treatment and information response. All leading our communities down the right road ahead, across the changing landscape of drug using Britain today. Erin O’Mara