Drug Consumption Rooms: A Presentation by Fiona Gilbertson

This is a recording and transcript of a presentation given by Fiona Gilbertson at a closed conference examining drugs policy. Fiona Gilbertson is a campaigner and activist on a range of social issues including recovering justice for drug users. You can find out more about her work by visiting RecoveringJustice.org.uk


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My name is Fiona Gilbertson and I am cofounder of Recovering Justice; the other cofounder is there, she is Susan Sharkey who is now vice chair of LEAP who you will be hearing from later which is an organisation of Police Officers against the War on Drugs and also Anyone’s Child. Also Martin Powell is there from Transform. Anyone’s Child is a group of families who speak about the harms of drug policy.


So Recovering Justice was set up about five year ago… and we kept listening to people who had had problematic issues with drug use being kind of co-opted onto this ‘drugs-are-bad’; ‘drugs-are-dangerous’; ‘we-need-to-control-drugs’; and as somebody who has had a really problematic relationship with all sorts of drugs it just didn’t sit right.


And so we got together and we reframe our stories in the policy context. And what I believe now is, even as somebody who is in that 10% of people who will have problematic relationships with drugs, the drugs were never as problematic as societies response to me as a drug user.


So, yeah, I have had issues with drugs, but the biggest issue when I was taking… when I was really seriously taking heroine was criminalisation and stigma. And it is really weird; I am from Edinburgh, I don’t live in Edinburgh anymore… and I feel really emotional standing here.


Thirty years ago I needed a drug consumption room. I desperately needed a drug consumption room, and I found one. And it was unregulated, it was in an apartment and we all shared a set of needles and we were terrified because our doors were being kicked in and we were being brutalised and stigmatised by the police and we were being arrested on a daily basis.


And when I stand here, I stand on my own. Do you know the people who were in those rooms who were with me are dead. Before their deaths they were jailed more times than they were ever offered treatment. They had children removed before they were offered any help.


They became infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, and committed suicide on their own or committing suicide in prison. These are people who… Drugs are the only thing which kept me from killing myself at that time of my life, and then the state tried to kill me and my friends quite systematically.


So yeah, yeah, I do get really emotional and I will get to the hope bit in a minute but I realise that there would be a lot of talk around what drug consumption rooms are, who uses them… there is a lot of mythology around that. I just want to take you on a different kind of journey today, and this is the audience participation bit which all of you have been so looking forward to.


So, I’m going to try it two ways; who is willing to put their hands up if they have used a drug consumption room in the last week ? Right, ok, so not that many. Here is a drug consumption room. This is a regulated drug consumption room, and I am so sorry because smokers get stigmatised in our society straight off.


So who has used one of these ? Just keep your hands up. What about this ? It is an unregulated drug consumption room outside a hospital and I will get into this later – when we talk about drug regulation we are not talking about a free for all for drugs we are talking a lot like how we regulate nicotine, which is one of our most dangerous drugs in society.


Sorry guys, can you just keep your hands up for a minute. So I’m going to show another drug consumption room; maybe some of you have used this in the last week. Anybody used one of these in the last week ? – put your hands up. Thank you.  This is a licensed drug consumption room, and it is regulated, and it is legal, and it is licensed.


This, whilst it is not quite regulated, is legal. Let’s say this is somebody’s living room. Now I put in a search for 35 year olds drinking, and I did that specifically because Scotland calls its cohort of drug users who are IV (intravenous) drug using, an aging cohort. This is your aging cohort of people who are using alcohol. And I just wanted to show that because we so stigmatise and pathologize people who use certain kinds of drugs.


So if there is anybody in this room under 35 or over – if you were using heroin (??) rather than alcohol, you are an aging cohort – sorry to tell you. So, again, who put their hands up for all of those ? Thank you. All the rest of you are feeling very good; well let me put this by you.


Has anyone used one of these drug consumption rooms in the last week ? Thank you. I picked this one I didn’t want to use, it is just across the road from here, its coffee is really good; I got their permission. This is regulated. And if I was to show you a picture of Starbucks, it might be regulated and unfortunately not taxed.


So, I just wanted to challenge what a drug consumption room is, because when we sit in these rooms we may call these… We like to feel worthy and we like to feel that we are doing good for other people, and actually everybody uses some sort of psychoactive… most people use some sort of psychoactive substance.


I am hopeful in doing, I want to highlight some of the knowledge of the systematic stigma with certain drugs. Now Scotland is at a tipping point. I really do feel that. We have a media which has kind of abhorred; some of the language is just appalling – and it is the media. We have politicians who are involved in this for the right reasons; and this will be a vote winner, do you know we all know what politics involves.


But I am really really proud to say I vote for John Cowan (??) – and I don’t think we have that in Westminster. Do you know, we have so many opportunities here. So we will get to create truly effective policy based in human rights for everyone who uses drugs; not just the 10% who are not being in a state (??).


Here’s another drug consumption room I want to talk about. I mean I think this looks pretty lovely – I would like to go to here. This is a cannabis social club. I would like – and Recovering Justice will be holding a series of events which will talk about other kinds of drug consumption rooms. Let’s be really clear, the war on drugs is a war on people who use drugs – on certain people who use drugs.


Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or nicotine and sugar… So it is less toxic than all of those things. However a drug charge for possession of this will be life changing in the lives of people who are caught on a daily basis and stopped. We like to think that that’s not happening; if you think it is not then John Arthur is there, you can speak to him about it. It is still happening here…


…so, we are drawing arbitrary lines based on inherently racist policy and when I talk about the war on drugs it seems to be sensational, but the war on drugs Richard Nixon started – well he didn’t start it – he really forced through drugs policy which is what all our drugs policy is based on. An it has come out that he wanted to suppress the Black Communities and the Peace Communities…


…and he couldn’t just burst into peoples houses on a daily basis; he had to have a good reason to do that because America would have been outraged. So there is a statement out on a site where it is stated quite clearly, if we identified heroin with the Black Communities, and cannabis with the Peace Communities, we have an excuse to raid them on a daily basis.


That is the policy that you as police officers are acting out on a daily basis on our streets. So, as you can see, we are drawing arbitrary lines based on an inherently racist policy, implemented by a US president who was later impeached for corruption. We are drawing lines between the drugs we use and the drugs others use based, often not on harm, but on stigma and class.


All substances have various risks and benefits but our situation often defines those risks. Had I had access to a drug consumption room I would not be standing here in front of you thirty years later having lost my friends to HIV, having HIV myself and having a criminal record which has had an impact on most of my life.


So, I am no longer homeless and a drug user. I am bright, I am educated, I am housed, and I am privileged. And that is a slide which I didn’t show you. Most people get to use drugs in their homes. We are implementing these policies on people who have nowhere to go to the toilet never mind to consume drugs.


These are homeless communities; let me just tell you. There has been an outbreak in Glasgow in the homeless community. So stigma busting; this is what my drug consumption room looks like today. It was in Kensington, and I was using Ayahuasca – 5-MeO-DMT – with a lovely Mexican Shaman; it is a substance that I use to treat my complex post traumatic stress and grief.


After 17 years in long term abstinance based recovery I thought I cant square it anymore (??); abstinence based recovery works for ten percent of people, so we have to be looking for other solutions. I am not willing to let the ninety percent die for some recovery agenda; Im just not.


This is how I treat my health, my mental health. And obviously, when I was in this space, it was in Kensington, there was low risk of the police breaking down the door – I think there would have been an outrage. It was free…..


…and I was not at risk; so I was not at risk of either state or gang violence. So all I am asking for today… oh there is another picture, isnt there…. All I am asking for today; I want the same for my other friends. This is a drug consumption room – so for my fellow drug users, people who use and consume drugs, it is not consessions we want it is equal rights; it is opportunity for a safe space, and it looks like this.


The war on drugs is not a war on drugs, it is a war on people who use drugs; it is a war on families of people who use drugs. In Scotland we get to choose. Thank you


The audio recording was done by Alex Dunedin on request of Fiona Gilbertson


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