Heroin Use and Activism in Ithaca, NY: An Inside Look

By Keri Blakinger 05/31/17

Keri Blakinger sits down with a former running buddy and current participant in VOCAL-NY's film about safe injection facilities, The Caring Community

A poster showing safe injection practices

When I saw Brian pop up on my computer screen, my jaw hit the ground. I thought for sure he was dead.

But no, here he was, talking passionately about the need for a safe injection site in Ithaca, the tiny heroin-riddled town where we’d first met nearly a decade earlier.

In the late 2000’s, we’d done lots of drugs together and then gone our separate ways; me to prison, him to rehab and methadone maintenance. In the meantime, the town we knew and loved had turned into a ground zero for progressive drug policy - and now the man I’d known as Sideways Brian was one of the faces of it, featured in a documentary that debuted in Ithaca earlier this month.

The Caring Community is a short film backed by VOCAL-NY, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group speaking out on issues surrounding the drug war. Spearheaded by the dynamic activist couple Taeko Frost and Matt Curtis - who also worked on “Everywhere But Safe” - the film focuses on the need for a safe injection facility in small towns like Ithaca.

The upstate New York hippie haven burst onto national drug policy scene last year with a controversial plan to combat the toll of heroin addiction by offering a safe injection facility. Currently, SIFs aren’t legal under state or federal law, but if they become a reality, they could theoretically reduce disease transmission rates, minimize overdose deaths and maybe even encourage people to get clean.

The coalition of Ithacans who came together on camera to advocate for that possibility includes everyone from former users to the recently retired District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson - whose office oversaw my sentencing - to Lillian Fan of the Southern Tier AIDS Program, the area’s needle exchange.

I know and have been friends with almost every person in the new movie, but it was Brian that I most wanted to sit down with and ask some questions.

Keri: So first of all, how did you end up in this movie? Because I gotta tell you, I was watching it and I was shocked to see you - I didn’t know if you were still alive.

Brian: (laughs heartily) It came about because I was working as a peer (giving out needles to other users) for the exchange. And Lillian - you know Lillian, right? - she asked me if I wanted to go to different conferences and stuff so I met Matt and Taeko at conferences. And at some point they asked me if I would be interested in being in a movie they were gonna make about SIFs and I agreed to be in it.

So did that take some convincing? Were you worried about being that public about having been a drug user?

No, I really wasn’t. I’m not ashamed of people finding out or knowing that I’m a drug user. And people use that term now “drug user” instead of “drug addict,” ya know? But I don’t go for that, like why try to soften it? That’s going to remove the stigma?

I’m not embarrassed or ashamed, it doesn’t make me a bad person. I’ll present myself as a drug addict, a person who tried to do the next right thing. I’d rather try to change that stigma that way.

So I wasn’t worried about coming out like that because I see it as an opportunity to change people’s opinions about drug addicts.

Did you have other goals with this? I mean, obviously the directors wanted to promote SIFs and then for you it it sounds like it worked to help fight stigma around addiction. Do you think there’s anything else this movie achieves?

I guess so. I very much support what they are trying to do with the movie, but I also I’m hoping that I can change the way people perceive junkies, drug addicts. I think that we might do some crazy shit but for the most part we’re good people.

So I think the last time we talked was like 2009 or 2010. So what has gone on since then - what have you been doing with yourself?

Well I guess in 2010 I was kinda hustling and staying afloat and I was working as a peer and I was still kinda functional and Lillian was giving me more responsibilities within STAP and I kinda started to get away from hustling. I just got tired of it, of living the whole dope fiend life. And, Keri, I started using heroin 26 years ago by the time I was done. My habit was so out of control. So I decided I would try to get clean and so Lillian and the people at STAP helped me and in 2013 I finally went to Conifer Park, 30 days inpatient.

I had every intention of staying clean but the second I got back to Ithaca something clicked in my brain and I went and did dope. Boom. And I went back to Conifer Park seven times. I really wanted to get clean, you know, and in between all that I was also on the methadone waiting list. I was still waiting to go to the clinic in Syracuse but the waiting list was so long. And eventually I was able to get on methadone in Binghamton - on March 23 last year.

Lillian and STAP helped me a lot. They really saw the potential that I had, even when I was at my worst.

So now that you’re clean are you still working at STAP?

Yeah. Lillian and STAP, they really had my back and they never gave up on me. They always helped me get into rehab or helped me with whatever I needed. They helped me with doctor appointments, they helped me get on methadone. And that’s harm reduction, you know?

They saved my life and they helped me far more than any 12 step-program ever did. I can’t say that enough. And if the SIFs ever start and are a reality and the same opportunities are made available for who knows how many addicts, that would be a blessing. I would love to see a lot of other people take advantage of these opportunities. Because that’s what would really happen. Sure, people would have a safe place to use, but if people wanna get into a detox or get on methadone or find housing, they can try to get into that stuff at the SIF. And that’s kinda a big reason why the SIF is there.

So since you’re still involved in STAP, I imagine that you have a sense of what’s going on out there - has it changed? I feel like all the time we read about data saying there’s an increase in heroin use but does it feel that way to you?

Oh yeah, Keri. It’s totally different. It’s a lot different than when you were around, back in our heyday.

Different how?

There’s more people and there’s a whole new generation of people using and it’s a lot more people. And all these people that used to smoke crack do dope now. The quality is way up and there’s almost no bags - price is down, quality is up. An OD used to be kinda a rarity back in our time, but now it’s a regular thing. A month ago eight people OD’d in two weeks. It’s fuckin' crazy.

What do you think is driving it? Do you think it’s people switching from pills? I feel like that’s what we see a lot in the news, but what do you think is behind it?

You know, it’s hard to say. I almost think that it’s like the social thing to do now. I think that people are hanging out and they’re drinking beer and they get a buzz and they try dope. I think it’s just like this cycle that’s happening, but it’s a cycle that kind of sticks around because with heroin it’s a hard physical addiction.

Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, drugs seem to sort of go through cycles. I mean, there was cocaine and crack in the 80s and heroin in the early 90s and then meth and now it’s heroin again. But, from your perspective, how would a SIF help this current glut of heroin addiction?

I think that a lot of people go to certain (store and business) bathrooms here in town and run in and out. They locked a lot of them now, and people still get the key and everything. But there’s been so many overdoses in those bathrooms. I think if there’s a SIF and the opportunity to go do that there, and it’s anonymous, it’s safe and your identity is not revealed to law enforcement, I think people would take advantage of it - certainly.

But honestly I was thinking about it. I mean, SIFs are great but I’m thinking about myself when I was using and I think if I had to walk six blocks out of the way I wouldn’t have done it.

Yeah, that’s true. But maybe people won’t have to do that.

So I guess it all comes down to the location.

Yeah, exactly.

What did you think when you first heard the idea? Were you like, ‘Oh that’s some crazy shit, that’s not gonna happen?’ Were you intrigued? What was your first thought?

I was really surprised that and kind of in disbelief that it was even being considered, that it might even happen here. But Ithaca’s been kind of the first place for a lot of innovative things. It’s a progressive, open-minded city. So if a SIF is gonna happen somewhere, Ithaca would seem like a probable spot.

I don’t know how much this happens, but how does the conversation go when you explain SIFs to non users?

It varies, some people have already made up in their mind that it’s a place to let people use drugs and without any penalty or consequence and it’ll be a sore spot in the community and no matter how reasonable you try to be, if they’re gonna be close-minded about it that’s that.

But I’ve talked to other people who once you explain the idea and the benefits of a SIF to the community and that the things people would like to see put in place to fight the opioid epidemic are actually there with the SIF - the access to drug treatment programs, access to maintenance programs, keeping drug users out of sight or at least minimizing it and keeping syringes and paraphernalia out of sight and it’s a way to treat disease - maybe they don’t change their mind all the way, but they’re willing to listen.

The main fear people have is that it’s going to be a place where a bunch of shady looking junkies will be going in and out of and bringing evil stuff.

And what about when you’re telling users about it?

It’s funny, some of them say there’s no way they’ll ever go in there because it’s just a trap so they can see who the addicts are. Other people don’t believe that it’s really gonna happen. And there are other people say if it happens they’ll definitely use it. And it’ll almost be a place to socialize for dope fiends.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.