Update: Occupy Wall Street’s Drug Problem(s)

Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to present today a cross-posting by freelance writer and addiction specialist Jed Bickman, a regular contributor to (among others) The Nation, The Huffington Post, and The Fix–an online magazine of addiction and recovery culture whose debut we discussed last spring.  While the Points staff likes to think that our provocative think piece on drugs in the Occupy movements blazed a trail on the topic, as desk jockeys whose duty is first and foremost to serve the citizen-students of Florida we are limited in our ability to follow up on developments on the ground.  Thus we’re especially grateful to on-the-scene reporters like Bickman, who can bring our readership incisive coverage like that in the post below.  Thanks to him and to The Fix for allowing us to re-publish.

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.

Zucotti Park: Two Sides to Every Story

According to police and organizers, there are “two sides of town” in Zuccotti Park…and at night the differences become 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… and the lack of oversight 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 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.”

That Damnable Socialist Health Care

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.”

A few days after the NYPD’s unsuccessful attempt to dismantle the medical tent (on the grounds that as a “structure” it was not permitted in the camp) medics Ed Mortimer and Frank White sat down with The Fix to talk frankly about drugs in Liberty Plaza. Mortimer—a trained street medic, one of many gnarly and stalwart veterans of the protest scene who form an underground collaborative of more or less medically savvy people who get their qualifications more from experience than from classrooms—has been living on the square for much of the occupation, after he answered a call for street medics to help the movement.  White, a relative newcomer after four nights, is a mental health counselor from Connecticut who became the de facto point person for drugs and alcohol issues.

“You’re not supposed to be drinking and drugging on the square,” Mortimer says. “When we see that, we try to convince people to leave, explaining that it hurts the movement. To be uncontrollable, that undermines the movement.” Drug using and dealing would also give the cops an excuse to search and arrest occupiers. White adds that “most of the people I have to intervene with are fighting against a system that has been beating them down for their whole lives. So some of them have emotional problems, and some of them address those problems with drugs and alcohol.” Although the movement needs to maintain a sober face, it isn’t about judging those people for their histories or their habits. But people who use are generally asked to use outside the park. “And there are some people who come here who have severe mental health issues. They have the best of intentions, and they are in the same 99%,” White says, carefully avoiding the terms “the homeless” or “street people” while speaking of them.

Street Medics at the Front Lines

As medics, Mortimer and White do their best to head off emergencies or less serious problems with drugs and alcohol through strategic interventions and, more generally, through open discussion, so that people don’t feel they have to hide their use and only come to the medics when things go bad. They do everything in their power to keep from having to institutionalize people who display mental-health problems.  [Street medics are discussed in greater detail in Bickman’s story in The Fix and on his blog.– Ed.]

Volunteers include members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who do outreach and distribute AA literature. Mortimer has also coordinated unofficial AA meetings, which are “just like any other AA meeting, the only difference is that they’re fluid. If we need to have a Big Book meeting, we’ll have a Big Book meeting. If we need steps, we’ll have a [twelve] steps meeting.” He hopes to make the meetings “official” by proposing them at the General Assembly and getting them on the schedule on the new giant blackboard that has recently appeared in front of the media station at the top of the park.

Patients dealing with “severe inebriation,” as Mortimer puts it, are not simply expelled from the square but are instead transported to the medical tent, where volunteers take care of them and try to explain how drug and alcohol use at the park hurts the movement. So far, says Mortimer, he has not come across anyone whose life was in imminent danger due to drug or alcohol use, though other medics say that several people have been rushed to the hospital. Early in the occupation, there were widespread media reports that there had been a drug “overdose” in Zuccotti Park, a term that immediately brings heroin to mind. In truth, the person had been “Robotripping”—drinking cough syrup—and had come to a medic who was not trained in responding to drug use and who introduced the term “overdose” into the rumor mill around the park—and the New York Post. Mortimer assures me that the Robotripping patient “was never in danger of dying” and was taken by ambulance to a local emergency room.

Different medics see—or tell reporters—OWS’s drug problem differently. Kostry’s account of drug dealers selling a wide variety of substances as well as an incidence of drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning differs from the markedly more sober scene described by Mortimer and White, who failed to mention dealers or overdoses. Requests to the NYPD for an interview to get its reports of drug use and drug dealing, including arrests made, if any, have yet to be answered.  Susan Howard of the New York Lawyer’s Guild, which represents many protesters who have been arrested, says that the NLG is not representing anyone on drug charges, and that they know nothing about any drug activity at the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

Good Fences (Among Other Things) Make Good Neighbors

By all accounts, the vast majority of protestors on the square respect the ban on drugs and alcohol. A casual observer is likely never to see drug use or dealing, and those who flout the “no drugs” policy are usually confronted by fellow protestors. On a recent weekend, before the “Good Neighbor” policy was implemented, a man standing next to me at a General Assembly took out a joint, lit up, and began taking a few puffs. A protester behind him immediately asked him to put out the joint. He quickly complied. Soon after, the facilitator made an announcement asking people to do drugs elsewhere on their own time, saying that “we want everyone to feel comfortable in this space.”

I spent Sunday, October 31st at Zuccotti Park interviewing protesters in an attempt to get a more detailed and coherent picture. Not surprisingly, very few people claimed that they used drugs. But there were notable exceptions. Sonya Zink, who has been present at the occupation since it started, told me that last night there were persistent rumors that the police were going to raid her corner of the park for drugs, but that nothing happened. When asked about the presence of heroin, coke, crack and other hard drugs, she said that they “weren’t a problem”—then made the surprising admission that she smokes pot openly in the park: “It’s an activism thing for me,” Zink told me. “I smoke right here on my bed when I do, and I want them to come arrest me for it. A lot of people are smoking weed out here for activism reasons, not because they’re trying to drop out, but because we think that weed should be legal and alcohol should be illegal.”

Madrid, 15 May

How to handle drugs and alcohol is a hot-button issue that each autonomous  Occupy encampment deals with in its own way. At Occupy Oakland, the city’s police officials blamed “rats, alcohol, and illegal drug use” as a rationale to shut down the tent city that sprung up there earlier this month. Similarly, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper used drugs as an excuse to shut down the camp in his city. As hundreds of  Denver cops moved into to end the protest,  23 people were arrested, none for drugs. In Boston, police have arrested just one couple for heroin possession. But tensions over the issue are running higher at  Occupy Los Angeles, where some participants say that drug use in the encampment is becoming too common. “Everybody is pretty much partying it up,” said Rachel Goldie, 20, who recently left an LA rally in disgust.

But John Beddle, an EMT at Zuccotti Park, explains it this way: “We don’t say that we’re going to have a party and change the world. We say, “Let’s change the world and then have a party.’” And a press representative for OLA said that while they, too, were doing their best to keep the LA site clean, “drugs are an undeniable fact of life at any large gathering of people, from concerts to ball games. It’s unrealistic for people to tar an entire movement for every infraction, when the police can’t even keep drugs out of jail.”

Yet drugs—and the attendant dangers and prejudices—will remain high on the list of reasons for police raiding occupations, arresting protesters, and evicting encampments. The occupiers’ prevailing practice of self-policing and friendly persuasion, however noble, is already—inevitably—falling short of effectively enforcing the official zero tolerance policy. In the days ahead, we will report on how this conflict develops and is dealt with around the country in Occupy Wall Street’s inspiring experiments in true democracy.