Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem?

By Jed Bickman 10/23/11

It isn't a pot carnival or a "crack alley," no matter what Fox News claims. But despite a new zero-tolerance policy, alcohol and drug use in Zuccotti park may threaten the entire movement.

According to a medic at Zuccotti Park, trained volunteers tend to dozens of drug and alcohol abuse victims a day. photo via

Thirty-eight days since the Occupy Wall Street movement first took over Lower Manhattan's Liberty Plaza, the movement has spread to more than 100 cities around the globe. Close to 60% of Americans approve of the protests. And while the protests exact demands remain hazy, the frustrations that spawned them have clearly struck a chord with Americans whose wages have remained stagnant over decades as more and more wealth has been transferred to the nation's richest 1%—who now own 40% of the nation's total net worth. Occupy Wall Street has succeeded, for the moment, in moving the populist issue of corporate greed and economic inequality to the forefront of the political debate. But its position there has been repeatedly attacked by opponents' attempts to paint the protests as a druggy, radical carnival.

When the movement began, most of the media treated it as an object of mockery, if they covered it all. Even The New York Times  was slow to cover the movement that was born in it's own backyard. Several days into the protest, the paper finally ran a condescending article summing up the encampment as "street theater" and the protesters as rebels without a cause, focusing on a Joni Mitchell look-alike  dancing at the edge of Liberty Park in her cotton underwear "[with the apparent] wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968." The subtext was obvious: If these kids aren't high, they're sure acting like it!

But as Occupy Wall Street enters its second month without any signs of abating, respect is finally being paid by the media, the Democratic Party, President Obama and even some Republicans. Recent polls claim that 73% of New Yorkers support the grass-roots action. Zuccotti Park has been visited by a disparate array of advocate, celebrities and politicians. Caught off-guard by the growing popularity of the movement, right-wing outlets media like  Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and the Fox News Network have worked hard to demonize the movement by alternately portraying protestors as violent anarchists or coddled, work-averse college grads. Drugs have been a reliable lightning rod for such attacks. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are criminals “lured by drugs and free food,” the Post recently reported. In fact, the paper managed to locate only a single criminal among among the several hundreds of protestors massed at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan—their reporter must have worked hard to spot him. Undaunted, Fox's Bill O’Reilly went further, denouncing the protesters as “a bunch of crackhead drug dealers.” His guest, conservative author Margaret Hoover, then irritated him by correcting him. "They’re not crackheads, Bill,” she said. “There’s soft drugs—marijuana, stuff that you inhale. I personally haven’t smelled it. My husband has.” She then added, “It’s a counter-culture collective.”

The truth is, that while the Occupy Wall Street movement is largely sober and self-enforcing, such criticisms have clearly impacted its organizers, who are awaiting the inevitable showdown with the city's cranky mayor, Mike Bloomberg, over the right of the unprecedented encampment to continue. After the October 13 threat of eviction—the urgency to clean the park was the pretext—by the billionaire mayor, the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly unanimously adopted a “Good Neighbor" policy that included the statement, “OWS has zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol anywhere on Liberty Plaza.” Unlike many issues, the policy was not debated by the General Assembly. Instead it was presented as a fait accompli. OWS press representative Jeff Smith told The Fix, “The language of the 'Good Neighbor' policy was not decided by the General Assembly. The language was imposed on us from outside.”

As I learned after interviews with dozens of people, it appears that the movement's "leadership"—a notably vague and nebulous entity—felt that the encampment dodged a bullet—and a likely bloody showdown with police—when it escaped eviction October 13. They managed o hold on to the park after an impressive show of resistance by the occupiers and the hundreds of supporters who flocked all night to the scene forced the city to back off. That attempted eviction sparked a round of negotiations between the real estate company that owns the park, complaining neighbors, the police, and the city, which resulted in the OWS's new  "Good Neighbor" policy. Yet despite the "zero tolerance," policy that emerged from these talks, some medics interviewed at the scene admit that drugs remain a growing problem, despite their best efforts to keep the park clean in all senses of the word. 

So how much of a drug problem is there at Zuccotti Park? That may depend on which side of the park you happen to be in. According to police and organizers, there are “two sides of town” in Zuccotti Park. The park itself is about a half-acre of granite in the midst of towering skyscrapers—a not especially comfortable or attractive public space in which thousands of workers in the city's financial district gathered every weekday to eat their take-out lunches. But for over a month now, almost every square inch of the space has been packed with a diverse array of people; on weekends, the park is so jammed that the police have trouble containing the human mass inside the boundaries of the protest. On most weekdays, it is navigable but very busy. But it's at night that the differences between the two sides of the park become most vividly apparent. The side of the park adjacent to Broadway, where the main protests are held and where the media center and library are, forms the clean, public face of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Long after midnight, a frenetic burst of activity continues under the bright lights.

By contrast, the other side of the square, adjacent to Trinity Place, has become an unlit camping area for overnight protestors, where sleeping bodies occupy pretty much every available space. Anyone who wants to spend the night can do so. Obviously, nobody asks people about their history with drugs and alcohol, or mental health before allowing them entry into the public space. The lack of oversight means has allowed less savory elements to set up shop among the mostly law-abiding protestors. Street medic Paul Kostry, a 27-year-old volunteer from New Mexico,  told The Fix on Sunday that several drug dealers had taken over a few of the sleeping tents on the dark side of the park, selling drugs from cocaine to heroin to marijuana. "We've got our own set of drug lords here, unfortunately," Kostry says. "We know what tents they're operating out of, and we're doing our best to deal with them." But Zuccotti Park, he adds, is a microcosm of New York City itself—including people with drug problems and those who prey on them. "Everyone recognizes that we cannot allow the drug dealing, and there are certainly steps being taken to deal with that," Kostry says. "But we are here to help the victims of that. There's a reason the medical tent is where it is."

The makeshift medical tent—easy to take down and put up, covered on four sides with opaque white plastic—provides free health care to all the occupiers, and is staffed by volunteer medics of all backgrounds—doctors, nurses, EMTs, mental health professionals, and street medics, some of whom accompany the protesters on street marches and other direct actions, when they often need medical attention due to violent responses of the police. 

It is here that people dealing with drug and alcohol problems can find help from a dedicated group of medics who treat people suffering from overdoses and detoxing from alcohol. Kostry estimates that medics treat about a dozen people for drug or alcohol-related problems every day. "We've had a few people who've been brought in after ODing on heroin," he says. "We usually treat them with Narcan, a short-term opiate blocker, and take them to a hospital, if necessary. There's ketamine and coke available here here, too—generally the addicts here prefer stuff that can be sniffed and easily concealed. We've also had people with alcohol poisoning who needed immediate detox. We are medics. We try to treat them on site, stabilize them, and get them the help they need. We heavily discourage them from using in the park. It's certainly not something we support."

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.