Ithaca Drug Users' Union: Changing Perceptions and Fighting Stigma

By Jamie Swinnerton 07/19/19

“We don’t discourage use, but we don’t promote it either. We encourage people to participate in whatever kind of treatment would give them a better quality of life.”

Herb Howland-Bolton and Tony Sidle, Ithaca Drug Users Union
Herb Howland-Bolton (left) and Tony Sidle (right) both see the union as a way to advocate against the stigma and shame that drug users feel, which they say is used against them in traditional treatment. Images via Author

Since the Introduction of the Ithaca Plan in 2016, Ithaca, New York has been part of the national conversation of progressive drug policy. The plan includes the use of Safe Injection Facilities where drug users can safely use under the supervision of a medical professional. Supporters of the facilities argue that users will never have the chance to get clean if they overdose first, and this facility allows them to stay alive until they are ready for treatment.

Three years later, Ithaca remains a politically progressive area with fairly progressive drug policies, but local drug users and former drug users see room for improvement in the way that they are treated in the legal system, health care, and treatment, to name a few. So, they’re forming a union.

Raising Awareness and Breaking Down Sterotypes

According to the Ithaca Drug Users’ Union mission statement, it is a group of former and current substance users “who confront the stigmas and injustice long suffered by drug users to replace them with fairness and compassion for all.” Since being formed earlier this year, the union members have already started planning protests and will be creating a television show to air on the local public access network every other week.

“We really felt it was a good way to get out our message and be out front and open with it,” said Brian Briggs, the union’s director and founder, about why the union decided to pursue a television show. “The other [drug user’s] unions are fighting for stuff that we think are basic rights and we have. If we don’t take the next step and take up that mantle and be willing to take that risk and be out front on TV, then who will?”

Local organizations like the Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP) and the Ithaca REACH Project, which operates a low threshold harm reduction medical practice in Ithaca, have helped fight for harm reduction practices that many other places with drug unions don’t have. But it’s on the drug users, Briggs said, to fight for themselves and their rights. Part of that fight includes pushing back against stigma and breaking down stereotypes. By putting their authentic selves on television, Briggs wants to show people that drug users are just people.

“We’re not trying to antagonize anybody,” Briggs said. “We want people to just hear us and basically enjoy us. We’re a group of fun people and we have a blast. Maybe people can see us for that and just enjoy it.”

Brian Briggs shows off a potential logo for the union designed by one of the members.

Briggs has been a drug user since 1991. He was put on methadone for a spell then tried quitting cold turkey because he wanted to be done. When he got hurt playing hockey in the early 2000s, he became dependent on pain killers and tried going back to a traditional treatment center but didn’t feel like he could get the help he needed. In 2003 he went on Suboxone and went back to school with the goal of getting a master’s degree in social work, but he said that even though his urine tests were clean, his provider stopped prescribing him Suboxone because he wasn’t attending group meetings, which were part of his treatment plan. He used all the medical leaves he could with the community college he was attending but couldn’t go back to finish his degree.

Since 2007, Briggs has been a volunteer with STAP doing peer-delivered syringe exchange and spreading the word about harm reduction services in the community. In STAP he found a like-minded community that understood that traditional treatment and its strict rules doesn’t work for everyone.

“They agreed with me and believed me and I got involved in this whole movement,” he said. “I felt like I was sane again. I could say stuff like I want to be treated like a diabetic who needs insulin. If a diabetic goes to the doctor and the doctor says ‘How are you doing?’ and his blood sugar is all messed up, his health is bad because his diet has been terrible and he’s been eating Twinkies and Ho Hos, well he’s not following his treatment plan but he needs insulin to live.”

He was inspired to start a union after attending a conference last year and speaking with Jess Tilley, the creator of the first drug user’s union in New England. Earlier this year he started collecting members and holding regular meetings. It didn’t take long for him to find people who bring personal investment to the union’s mission, including his best friend Tony Sidle.

At first, Sidle, a former heroin user and dealer, said he didn’t want to be part of the union because it was Briggs’ thing. He went to the meetings when his friend asked him to but mostly to observe. He understands what Ithaca Drug Users Union sounds like. In his words, it sounds like “a shooting gallery.”

“That’s not what it’s for,” he said. “We don’t discourage use, but we don’t promote it either. We encourage people to participate in whatever kind of treatment would give them a better quality of life.”

Prohibition Feeds the Beast of Mass Incarceration

People in active addiction and people in active use, Sidle said, don’t get a fair shake or a voice. It’s part of why he joined the union and has become a very active member. Like Briggs, Sidle takes issue with the narrow ideas of treatment currently being used and sees prohibition as another way to feed the beast that is mass incarceration in the United States.

The union is not afraid to be public, as demonstrated by their participation in the recent Ithaca Festival parade, an annual community event that celebrates dozens of local organizations. Four of the members, including Sidle and Briggs, regularly attend meetings of the Criminal Justice and Alternatives to Incarceration committee (CJAI), headed by Dave Sanders, Tompkins County Criminal Justice Coordinator. The committee is made up of representatives from local organizations and municipal offices that work with incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated, individuals, with the goal of reducing the jail population and supporting the formerly incarcerated community. Sanders said he is impressed by the union members’ knowledge of the systems at play and the questions they bring to each conversation. He sees the union as an advocate group for drug users seeking help. 

“I think that their ideas are very important, especially with how we’re moving things forward,” Sanders said. “I think there’s a place for that right now.” 

The union’s next big stand will be a protest at the local hospital, Cayuga Medical Center, where multiple members of the union say they have been treated badly because of their history of drug use.

“If people are afraid to go into hospitals because of the way they are treated because of the drug addiction, then the chances [increase] of people dying from things that they shouldn’t die from, and losing arms, and making things exacerbated and further complicated than they need to be…that needs to change,” Sidle said.

Sidle was incarcerated for about 13 years on drug-related charges and was an active drug user for about 20 years. Now, he’s taking Suboxone, works at the local homeless shelter, and is the vice president of the union (even though he and Briggs both agree that titles don’t really matter). He’s been through traditional treatment a number of times but didn’t feel like he was actually being listened to, just judged. He doesn’t apologize or make excuses for his past use and dealing, but he wants people to stop treating him and other users like that is all they are. 

Herb Howland-Bolton is a longtime friend of Sidle’s who started using drugs as a teenager. He joined the union because he doesn’t want other kids to go through what he did, and has had too many friends die from an overdose that could have been helped if the system was different.

“People died before they could advocate for themselves,” Howland-Bolton said of the shame and stigma that causes drug users to hide their use and put themselves in unsafe situations because of their addiction.

The union’s main goals are to confront the stigma against drug use that makes users hide and to promote treatment options outside of what is traditionally offered. While marching in the parade, and at the eventual protest, members will be holding signs that list the names of their dead friends and acquaintances, drug users who were sent through traditional treatment (sometimes multiple times) but for one reason or another, it didn’t work.

Traditional Treatment Can Be a Setup for Failure

Over and over, members of the union described the precariousness of traditional treatment methods. Missing a meeting could mean mandatory volunteer hours that they have to fit in between more meetings and work and life. A parole violation could mean being sent back to jail where their treatment plan would be interrupted. Getting out of rehab without a support system to help them find housing that isn’t with other users means they are often right back where they started. 

Jane* is a member of the union who is also going through Ithaca City Drug Court, which is specifically for offenders whose charges are associated with drug use. Drug Court participants are expected to stay clean and get treatment and find a job or go back to school. It’s set up to be a nine-month program but she’s been in it for two years. Jane has done inpatient treatment multiple times and said she’s a perfect patient while there, but it’s never enough time to address the trauma that fuels her addiction. She’s currently doing an outpatient program, and thankfully she has a counselor who allows her to be honest and gives her flexibility.

“Right now, I’m free. I’m not in jail, I’m not in rehab, I’m out in the real world,” she said. “But, if one thing goes wrong, that’s gone. That’s all taken away. And that’s terrifying.”

Often, she feels, with traditional treatment, they aren’t given the opportunity to succeed. She sees the union as a place for support and connection for users or past users, support that isn’t offered in the current system.

*Not her real name

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Jamie Swinnerton is a reporter and writer currently looking for her next journalism home. Her print work has appeared in Westword, The Denver Voice, Ithaca Times, and Tompkins Weekly where she predominantly covered local news and politics. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter