I’m at the four-star Radisson Hotel in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, for one of the world’s most cosmopolitan gatherings of former and current drug users. There are heroin-injectors from the slums of Nairobi, opium-eaters from the streets of Nepal, and crack-smokers from Kabul, alongside a number of health workers, human rights campaigners, and politicians.
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In total, 750 people have made it to the International Harm Reduction Conference in an attempt to figure out how to reduce the damage being done to drug users by the world's governments' War On Drugs. For four days, the Radisson is a bubble of immunity for narcotics fans from Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, and other states whose citizens are beaten, slung in remote detention centers, and denied basic health care because of their drug habits.
At the hotel, there are needle cans in every bathroom (all hotel staff have been trained to dispose of used needles), a pop-up methadone clinic, a needle exchange, and a heroin overdose nurse on hand to pull delegates back from the brink (by the end of the conference, she'd saved three lives).
In the huge first floor lounge, a heroin-smoking workshop entitled "Demonstration: Foil Pipe Making Techniques," carried out by a drug worker from Kent named Neil Hunt, is attracting a large and curious crowd, with Neil using sugar as a heroin substitute to demonstrate the best way to craft your own homemade pipe. It’s not often that you find heroin-smoking workshops in the middle of a corporate hotel in a former Soviet state. But, to be fair, it’s not often you go looking for them, either.
I decided to leave Neil's demonstration to meet some of the attendees and find out more about the lives that had brought them here.
Outside, I talk to Sergey Uchaev, a 30-year-old drug user activist and former heroin user from Uzbekistan. He tells his translator that he's worried I'm from the KGB. I think he’s joking, but it turns out he’s not. The Russian authorities have a track record of spying on activists in former states. Plus, he’s a drug user activist, so no wonder he’s wary.
Sergey had his leg amputated 13 years ago because of infections caused by shooting up. He was 17 at the time and had already been injecting for three years. He tells me he had no idea it was addictive or that you could get diseases like HIV and hepatitis C from using needles. Later in life, he was sentenced to five years in prison after he was caught with a spliff.
Anastasia Teper, 30, who works for a charity called Vocal that helps young drug users, tells me in a thick Brooklyn accent that coming to this conference so close to Russia means her life has come full circle. In the early 1990s, her impoverished Jewish-Gypsy family fled from Moscow, fearing persecution. They took refuge in New York, and at 15 she ended up falling in love with a heroin user, six years older than her. By 18, she was speed-balling and had a full-blown crack and heroin addiction.
“I realized that, all along, my boyfriend had wanted to get me addicted to heroin to have someone to share the whole drugs and money thing with.” By 21, she had been sectioned twice and had tried to kill herself just as many times. “I was getting ready to die. I had a death wish. I could not see past the age of 25,” she tells me. “But when I turned 22, I realized I wanted to live. Most of my friends are dead, but now I’m caring for people, which is what I always wanted to do.”
Daniel Tinga is from Nairobi in Kenya. He’s probably the biggest man I’ve ever seen, standing around seven feet tall. He started using heroin when he was 26 after becoming a “safe-keeper” for a drug baron. “I used to hold kilos of heroin for him in my house where I lived with my wife and two kids. I got paid £300 (about $460) a month per kilo. At first I didn’t know what I was looking after... but I realized when then they started bringing junkies around to test it.
"I was curious, so I stole a bit from the stash, smoked it, and it felt nice, like a euphoria. I was secretly using 1.5 grams a day, but then my wife found me very high and decided to leave me. The drug baron found out I'd been taking some of the stash, so he fired me. I got very depressed. In order to buy heroin, I started dealing. I was also a mugger. I think I have the build for that job.”
Fred, a quick-talking Frenchman, has tigers tattooed on his neck. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, he spent his 20s DJing on the Paris catwalk scene, regularly hoovering up four to five grams of coke a day—for nine years.
“It was too much, I know, and it wasn't possible to sleep sometimes, but I never had financial problems. Life continued; it was cocaine, clubbing, and sex. I thought about that product, cocaine, more than my own existence.
“I found out I had HIV when I was 18. My future was to die young. I was depressed, but I had so much fun with cocaine. The public have a bad opinion of drug users—they consider us criminals—but they all drink alcohol, and that's far more deadly.”
Brun Gonzalez, 24, also uses his experiences to help other people. When I ask him about drugs, he tells me that he’s “lived a bit,” which, after we get chatting, turns out to be something of an understatement. His body is a walking drugs well.
A reclusive outsider at his school in Mexico City (“because I had hippie parents”), from age 13 he was mixing “a non-stop series of chemical concoctions... whatever drugs I could find," and locked himself away in a studio playing psychedelic blues on his guitar.
By his late teens, he was injecting cocaine, mescaline, and opium in the same session. He had become a psychonaut—someone who explores the mind using an array of new and old psychoactive substances. “What I like about drugs is the introspection,” he tells me.
If there is a king of the drug users, it’s Eliot Albers. He is chief executive of what's effectively the global union for drug users, the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (Inpud), which has a stall at the conference and some nice T-shirt designs. A former punk from London whose drug career was sparked after reading Junky by William Burroughs as a teenager, Eliot was “a fairly withdrawn, depressed, pensive teenage existentialist worried about cosmic matters, death, and doom.”
“I thought heroin sounded like something I really ought to try,” he says. And he did. Straight out of school, he took off to the Golden Triangle, one of Asia’s two main opium-producing areas, and spent a whole year smoking high-grade heroin brought straight from the factory with two guys in a room in Chiang Mai. “It seemed to suit my temperament; it made me comfortable, relaxed and confident.”
Eliot’s passion for opiates led him to a stint eating opium in Palestine and another as a heroin-smoking philosophy lecturer. Now, he is one of only a few hundred people in the UK to receive injectable morphine on the NHS.
“I’ve never bought into the notion that addiction is an illness. It kept me functioning how I wanted to function, it suited me. I have a very strong bond with drugs. It’s a passion.”
The strange thing about Abdur Raheem, 49, from Kabul, is that after living one of the toughest lives imaginable, he is the mellowest person here. He started eating opium in an Iranian prison (where he had been sentenced to 12 years after getting into a fight) so he could numb a painful leg, allowing him to play soccer in the exercise yard.
"When I ate opium, it was a very special, enjoyable moment that I cannot express in words,” he tells me. After he was released from jail, addicted to opium, he discovered his fiancée had disappeared and his parents were both dead. He was then deported back to Kabul, where he became homeless and joined a community of 700 heroin injectors squatting in the city’s bullet-ridden former Russian cultural center.
An injecting abscess in his groin led him to a new drug clinic set up by Medecins de Monde, and Abdur became the first Afghan to be treated with methadone. After seven detoxes, he quit methadone, has been off it for two years and is now part of the Afghan Drug Users Movement. Expecting a harsh rebuke, I ask him if he uses any drugs nowadays. “Sometimes I take cocaine and crack,” he smiles, “but only with my friends at parties.”
Elsewhere, there are screenings of short films, one of which is called Carpet Drugged. Footage shows children in a hut in an Afghan village being fed opium by their parents to stem the pain from weaving carpets all day. This guy, Bikash Gurung, 26, won the best film award at the conference’s Drug Film Festival for Journey of Change, a film about how young drug injectors across Nepal are, as he was, routinely kidnapped, tortured, and detained by police. When Bikash was caught with some heroin in his teens, he was interrogated and beaten for 53 days before spending nine months in a jail where half the inmates were there on trumped-up drug charges.
There are other presentations about child glue-sniffers in Mombasa and teenage mephedrone-injectors in Bucharest. There’s a workshop about anthrax-contaminated heroin and one about how Sweden’s much-hyped drug treatment system isn’t as good as it thinks it is.
Having a conference about how best to help people with severe health problems is a perfectly sensible and laudable thing to do. But what makes a drug users conference at the Radisson hotel in Vilnius so absurd is the absurdity of the drug laws that brought these people here in the first place. None of the people I met were monsters. They seemed like good people who had suffered deep unhappiness, put themselves through a chemical wringer, and managed to come out fighting. By and large, they seemed to have done far more damage to themselves than to anyone else. Yet, what became clear from chatting to them is that, wherever they came from, the state had made it harder for them to survive and escape their situation for one reason: because they took drugs.
Not for the first time, I was left with the impression that the world's governments are less interested in waging a war on drugs than they are a war on drug users.
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