Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
DR ELIOT ROSS ALBERS (# 36)
Dr Eliot Ross Albers
Born in London, England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Jewish
DR ELIOTS’S STORY:
Dr Eliot Albers is a Doctor of Philosophy; he has also been injecting drugs for over 25 years and has used other drugs for even longer than that. Tall and slim, he stands out from the crowd and dresses with extraordinary attention to detail; despite the slightly outré appearance, he has a friendly manner and impressive clarity of thought. He is often seen on the television and in newspapers, cogently advancing the case for the decriminalisation of drugs and campaigning against the laws that turn thousands of ordinary people into criminals. As Executive Director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) he campaigns at all levels, including the United Nations, for human rights and the rights of drug users. He kindly agreed to be part of this project and to talk about the use of drugs in our and in other societies; about prohibition and the changing social attitudes towards drugs, and to those in society who use them; and about the consequences of our current draconian laws that criminalise users. High amongst his concerns is the savage, so-called ‘war on drugs’, a war that has contributed to the toppling of governments and has certainly corrupted many more. He talked too about the health issues associated with the use and prohibitions of drugs but, above all, of his vision for the future, his hope for sensible change in our attitudes towards drugs and those who use them.
Drugs, after all, have been with us from the very beginning. In a recent interview in Chiswick, Eliot observed: “Every documented culture has used drugs of some kind. Throughout history, time and space, throughout different cultures and disparate geographies, people have sought to alter their consciousness. Drugs were used in religious ceremonies, for recreational and ritual purposes, to augment performance or simply to bring pleasure and a more colourful dimension to an otherwise hard and often dreary existence. Universally, it has been a normal part of human behaviour - one might say that humans have had an almost symbiotic relationship with naturally-occurring drugs and the desire for intoxication is often described as ‘the fourth universal human drive’. Amongst the favoured natural intoxicants, the use of opiates derived from poppies has a 4,000-year history; cannabis use is known to date back to 3,000 BC; and, cocaine, sourced from coca leaves, has been very much a part of ancient Mesoamerican culture. Indeed, it is entirely possible to demonstrate the usage of a range of mood-altering, performance-enhancing and consciousness-expanding plant-derived substances throughout ancient times and such usage was clearly as widely dispersed as humanity itself. It is only since the 17th century that society attempted to define drug dependency as a disease, and the prohibitions that followed had, and continue to have, quite deleterious social and economic consequences.”
“Prohibition has been most zealously pursued since the mid-20th century, with the passage of three international conventions in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s defining what we might now call ‘global drug prohibition’. This extraordinary set of international conventions started to ramp up the system of global prohibition. They portrayed drugs as an evil, a danger to society and a threat to humanity; they posited drug use as a major factor destabilising social structures; and they therefore put drug use at the centre of what was perceived to be an enormously important moral discourse. With these attitudes came a deeply entrenched moralising; the constant demonisation and stigmatisation of those who consumed drugs provided the platform for declaring the use of drugs illegal, thus criminalising thousands of users and fostering an iniquitous trade in illicit substances. Amongst US prisoners, 48% are in custody for drugs offences - the US vies only with Russia in having the highest proportion of its citizens incarcerated. And inevitably, of course, the brunt of this incarceration falls on Americans of colour, for there is an alarming racial dimension to the US war on drugs, a war that I prefer to call the ‘War on Drug Users’. Only recently, are we beginning to see some cracks appearing in the fabric of global prohibition, which has hitherto received almost universal support. The organisation I represent (INPUD) aims to accelerate this process, to contribute towards the dismantling of prohibition and the repealing of those punitive measures against drug users that have demonstrably failed everywhere.”
Eliot is one of two sons born into a respectable North London family of secular Jews. Asked how he would describe his childhood, Eliot replied: “I had a pretty happy childhood, with loving parents. We were not wealthy but felt ourselves to be ‘comfortably off’. Though the house was not exactly full of books, neither was it an environment lacking in culture or solid social and moral norms. My father worked in a factory and my mother was a dentist’s receptionist. They made it possible for me to have a decent education, against which I bucked, I must say - I went to a local minor public school, considered to be a good establishment, but I was a problem child almost from the start. I didn’t like authority, I found the lessons boring and un-stimulating, and consequently I acted up.”
“As long as I can remember, I was always on the verge of being expelled. I was simply not inspired and, because I could never do exams, I was always placed in less demanding, lower performing streams which made matters even worse. I still can’t do exams now. When I was allowed to do work in my own time, following my own interests, without exception, I did extremely well. When I was forced to follow the curriculum, to work towards the exam, I simply could not do it. This was the continued pattern throughout my schooling, from the age of 8 right through to Year 12 and my A Levels.”
“As a teenager, I rebelled against rules, regulations and authority except by then I had acquired greater determination and resourcefulness. I saw it as a fight against stupidity, orthodoxy, what I perceived to be pointless, everything I felt to be foolish - all those rules and conventions without reason. My brother also rebelled in school but he was less overt, perhaps less determined to fight the system, while I was seen as being academically gifted but massively under-performing and this was always the cause of most of my frustrations. Yes, I think fondly of the teachers I loved, teachers who were dissidents themselves and who saw my potential, but even they were frustrated by my finding every exam an insurmountable obstacle. I excelled in English, History and Human Geography but I failed most of my O Levels.”
“This was around the time when I should most probably have been expelled from school but was allowed to stay on. It was the first and only incidence of my having potential trouble with the law over drug use: like many teenagers, I had been dabbling with cannabis and ‘magic mushrooms’ since the age of 14 or 15 and on one occasion, together with a fellow pupil (a high achiever, as it happens) bought a small amount of cannabis and shared it with some other friends. One of them was caught by the Police and we were identified as the ones who brought the stuff in. My friend nobly shielded me by accepting responsibility for it all and, because he was a star pupil, was merely reprimanded and allowed to stay on at school, whereas he knew that I would have been expelled. It was a narrow escape indeed. Overall, it was only thanks to some visionary teachers, who saw that there was more to me than was generally recognised by the examination system, that I was allowed to stay on in the education system at all. I soldiered on to do my A Levels and, of course, failed almost all of those too.”
Eliot wanted to go to university; he had always passionately wanted to study Philosophy but without the grades, all the doors remained closed to him. However, Eliot was by nature a very persistent and focussed young man and he just made his way to Manchester University where he met the future Head of the Philosophy Department, someone who became a close friend for years to come. “He listened to me, took a liking to me, and essentially bent the rules and allowed me in. As I was only 17, I decided to take a year off before university and worked for nine months in the Paul Smith Shop, saving enough money to go travelling to Thailand, India and Nepal - a deeply enriching and eye-opening experience. It was in Thailand that I tried heroin for the first time and this experience was in many ways almost life transforming. I loved it. To be perfectly frank, I went to Thailand with the express intention of trying heroin. At that stage, I was a voracious reader. I was reading the ‘Beats’ - Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, himself a life-long heroin user - and I desperately wanted to try the drug myself. Throughout my teens, I wanted to be part of the sub-culture, the alternative movements in the arts, and drugs were very much part of that scene.”
Of course, the close connection of creativity and drugs was nothing new: the Romantic Movements in England and in France offered a number of famous names - Coleridge, De Quincey, Baudelaire - all of whom exemplified the use of drugs as the inspiration for their work. Then, following the ‘Beat Generation’ of 1950s and 1960s America, there developed the drug scenes of ‘70s and ‘80s Europe, especially in Paris and Berlin where the use of heroin, as well as claiming a number of well-known victims, also spawned the most extraordinary creativity. The works of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, of Bob Dylan and The Beatles have all been enhanced through psychedelic experiences. Heroin has been a crucial part of the identities of many artists and while the films, Wir Kinder von Banhof Zoo or Christiane F, graphically illustrated how heroin could wreck lives, there was always another side to the coin, evidenced in works that have shaped our generation.
Eliot continues: “I remember clearly the diary entry I made in Thailand after I took heroin for the fist time; it read: ‘I feel like myself ...’ In retrospect, I probably suffered from a deep-seated depression throughout my early years, a depression that followed me always really, overshadowing more than a decade of my life, and during that time, though I went through a very wide range of anti-depressants, the heroin probably helped more than anything else.”
Back in Manchester, Eliot enjoyed his student life and, having deliberately chosen a course that had a substantial component of course work, he was largely free from the stress of examinations. “Almost without exception, when I was writing long essays, I excelled, but in all the exams that I was required to take, I failed predictably. The clear pattern from my school days was repeated. At the age of 22, I managed to get my degree in Philosophy and, though I wanted to continue with my studies, studies that might perhaps lead to a doctorate, I decided to undertake my second extended expedition, this time through the Middle East, to Israel and Palestine. Being a secular Jew and never a Zionist, I had a great empathy with the Palestinians. I lived in Jaffa, at that time a mainly Palestinian town, and fell in with a group of Palestinians who were also heroin users - the whole district we lived in smelled of the stuff. It was a great time in my life. I also undertook another amazing overland trip, from London to Egypt, through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, again Palestine, and then finally Egypt. I lived in Syria for a number of months, in Cairo for ten months, and for a further year in Palestine. I sustained myself by working on building sites, by helping people acquire essential travel documentation and, I fear, by acting as a conduit for certain intoxicants, not easily obtainable locally.”
Asked if, during his many overseas adventures, he had encountered tragedies, lives destroyed by drugs, lives of criminality, Eliot continues: “No, I have to say I did not. At that stage of my life, my experience of the daily use of drugs was nothing but positive.”
Now aged 24, and with his horizons and his experience of life rather broadened, Eliot returned to the UK and fell in love with a a girl from his past; they got married. “Being basically a nonconformist in every way, I cannot easily explain why I got married; I simply have no idea. Neither of us believed in the institution of marriage - we probably did it just to have an excuse for a bloody good party,” says Eliot, with a broad smile. “We stayed together for almost 10 years though, during which time I did my MA and my PhD, both at the University of Warwick. My wife sort of knew that I was a drug user and, at that stage, didn’t react in an adverse way, unlike most people who seemed to have a deep-seated abhorrence towards people who used drugs, especially heroin, perhaps the most demonised of all drugs. She herself never felt the need to use any substances, even though she was an artist, a prominent member of the Young British Artists, and moved in circles where drugs were plentiful. I was extremely lucky: I was never caught by the police and I managed to lead a relatively stable life, doing well in my studies. But once my wife became aware that I was using heroin on a daily basis, it created an enormous psychological strain between us. Living in Hackney, I never found procuring drugs to be a problem - there were dealers everywhere; however, knowing that not only my wife but also most people amongst our circle of friends would disapprove of my daily habit, keeping it concealed created a considerable strain between all of us.”
Asked if he thought that this was simply because of moralising or people’s unwillingness to accept him as he was, Eliot continued: “Heroin has been massively demonised as a very dangerous, destructive substance that will wreck your life. Its use has been massively stigmatised and, of course, criminalised, crack similarly; cocaine, on the other hand, has achieved a certain cachet amongst the chattering classes, even when crack and powdered cocaine are exactly the same substance, only in a different form to be used differently. The stigma attached to crack is prevalent even amongst those who regularly snort cocaine, a stigma that is largely fostered by media stories about ‘crack babies’ and ‘crack ghettos’; it is seen as the drug of desperate people, poor people, African-American people, not a drug to be used by successful white people. Crack was also systematically described as a ‘substance of no return’, yet its white powder equivalent has fuelled some of the most respectable parties of the rich and famous.”
Continuing his story, Eliot recalls: “Then three things happened to me at the same time: I finished my PhD, my marriage broke up, and a teaching job I had also came to an end; all the structures in my life that helped me to sustain my drug use without difficulty vanished almost overnight. I had nowhere to live, I had no work to do, and no university to go to. The one thing I did have was some freelance writing and a book to translate. I went to live in a squat in the Oval and stayed there for some months. That was also the time when my depression returned with full force. Next, I went to live in Paris again for a few months, continued to translate the book, and served on the editorial board of a French journal, thus becoming part of the French intelligentsia. I shared a flat with two delightful brothers who introduced me to injecting heroin - before that, I had always smoked it. Though I led what was in many ways a quite extraordinary existence, my depressions were a great hindrance to me. It also became more difficult to buy heroin and not being willing or able able to face the horrible symptoms of withdrawal, I switched to taking prescribed methadone.”
“As a matter of fact, the methadone itself brought on extraordinary depressions. Like most heroin users, I did not drink alcohol, as opiates and alcohol do not go well together, but while using methadone, I started to drink heavily and spiralled into a sorry state of depression, often verging on the delusional. My parents visited me in Paris several times and were deeply alarmed and, my situation having become untenable, I returned to London and to my parents’ house. My dear brother came to the rescue, finding me a well-paid job as a writer of content for corporate websites and I was able to carry on with my methadone programme. The serious depressions I suffered lasted for years, though the methadone deadened me to them somewhat and I continued drinking. This was a very dark period of my life and for my concerned family too.”
As there appears to be no history of depression in his family, I asked Eliot if there was possibly a causal link between his depression and his use of drugs from his teenage years onwards; after some thought, Eliot replied: “That is a possibility, I guess; indeed, many people have made the very same suggestion. But as a teenager, I often felt very uncomfortable in myself, I felt depressed then, and that was well before I took any drugs. Yes, it is true to say that from when I was 14, I used some kind of substance - cannabis, speed, mushrooms, acid, alcohol, heroin - but it was largely to help me escape from the heavy, dark cloud of depression. So, on reflection, no, I don’t believe that the use of drugs triggered my depression - the dark cloud was undeniably there first.”
Eliot is now 44 and, as the Executive Director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) has become internationally recognised. I asked him when it was he became associated with the politics of drugs: “I have always been politically active in various left-wing causes and I started to read extensively about the war on drugs and about various prohibitions; increasingly, I saw how all of that had impacted on my own life, so this became my personal cause. Through a series of fortuitous accidents, I met other activists and became involved in a movement that had international presence. This in turn has now developed into INPUD, a major campaigning organisation.”
“Though huge resources worldwide are deployed in policing and maintaining the prohibition of drug use - the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ - any objective assessment of this approach proves conclusively that these tactics are largely counter-productive. They are ineffective in achieving their goals and simply foster criminality, leaving aside the small matter of turning thousands of drug users into criminals.” Eliot is asked if he holds out any hope for change: “I think that there are a number of promising developments: for example, there has recently been some relaxation in the laws of the American states of Colorado and Washington, where the cultivation, production and sale of cannabis have been legalised - Uruguay was the first state to do this; in Portugal, the use of all drugs was decriminalised some ten years ago; in the Netherlands too, punitive sanctions have been removed and it is legal to sell cannabis, though production and supply remain in something of a grey area - the possession of small amounts of other drugs for personal use does not attract any criminal sanction. So, yes, there are indeed some very significant cracks appearing in what has been the hitherto flawless edifice of global prohibition, prohibition that has been sustained by the most punitive methods; in that respect, there are some grounds for optimism. My worry is that much of the reformist endeavour is focussed on cannabis regulation and I fear that a lot of activists will give up the broader battle once the law on cannabis is relaxed and that there will be less interest in addressing the position regarding opiates, cocaine and other psycho-active substances that are nonetheless used globally.”
“Unfortunately, we have made drugs into a massive problem; we have given up any kind of control in favour of prohibition, yet prohibition patently does not work, not even by any metric it sets itself; prohibition is an abject failure. No rational, empirical investigation can lead anyone to conclude that the current course of action is working. We spend billions of pounds on enforcement, on locking people up, on militarising countries, on destabilising states, while at the same time we condemn thousands of users to the very margins of society, turning them into social pariahs, into outsiders.
All the conventions which sustain the fabric of global prohibition were drafted before HIV appeared on the scene, and one of the consequences of these conventions, and the subsequent prohibitions, has been to engender a massive worldwide HIV epidemic amongst people who inject drugs. Although there is no inherent connection between active injecting and HIV, users are denied access to the sterile injecting equipment that would contain or eliminate this epidemic. Of course, the spread of hepatitis C has the same cause and this epidemic is proving to be even more severe amongst drugs users than HIV, but again, little attention is paid to it. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that hepatitis C is primarily spread by blood-to-blood contact, and it is thought unlikely that the pool of contagion will spread from the injecting community into the ‘straight’ world, unlike HIV which is passed on through sexual contact.” Asked if he suspects that there might also be some sort of ‘establishment conspiracy’ to let drug users kill themselves, Eliot hesitates: “I don’t like to use the term ‘conspiracy’ but yes, in effect, something similar is happening and hepatitis C is spreading fast. The long-term consequences for the world’s health systems of the 150-200 million people already infected will be very considerable indeed.”
“In the UK, where we have now had harm-reduction policies related to HIV for almost 20 years, we have managed to keep the spread of this virus largely contained, yet while approximately 1.5% of the injecting community are living with HIV, a staggering 54% have hepatitis C. Relatively, adopting practices that help prevent the spread of HIV is easier than containing hepatitis C because, unlike the HIV virus which dies quickly, the hep C virus can live outside the body for up to 6 weeks. So, unfortunately, even the free issue of clean needles and syringes to drug users is an inadequate response - every item of kit used for injecting (6 to 7 pieces of equipment) has to be sterile every time, never used twice, and never ever shared. Currently, there is massive underinvestment in this area and even in countries where such services do exist, people are afraid to access them. The following monstrous figure illustrates the problem exactly: of those drug users who are injecting and who live with HIV, only 4% receive anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs; this has been seen as the result of the massive stigma and discrimination within health care settings that are associated with drug use. In many countries, people identified as drug users are refused ARV’s (Russia is most certainly one of them) because they are seen as unreliable, irresponsible and somehow less deserving. We have created a situation where drug users are massively stigmatised, massively discriminated against and thus, to their immense detriment, they stay away from health services.”
Asked if he is optimistic that INPUD will be able to bring about change, Eliot replies: “We have a long way to go. Even amongst our allies in the drugs reform movement who are not themselves drug users, there is often a clear reluctance to include those of us who are. By now, we are a long-established (over 30 years) community movement of active drug users, yet we continue to be excluded from policymaking tables, though I am pleased to say that this is beginning to change. INPUD is now included in debates; we are interacting with the UN; we are beginning to talk to the WHO; and UNAIDS consult us, so we now have a voice at the UN when it comes to HIV. The problem of hepatitis C has a long way to go, as does drug law reform. What it is important to understand is that drug users wish to be seen and treated neither as criminals nor as patients, yet these are the only alternatives offered to date; we reject them both.”
“Dependent drug use has been ‘pathologised’; this is what we fight against. We do not see drug use as an illness and we do not agree with the ‘addiction framework’. Humanity uses stimulants all the time - we drink coffee, we imbibe alcohol, and we smoke cigarettes. I wish we could learn the lessons from the era of Prohibition in America in the 1920s: proscribing alcohol built massive criminal empires, caused hundreds of people to go blind as a result of drinking contaminated alcohol, and turned ‘Prohibition’ into an industry. We face a paradox and this is even reflected within governments; for example, one of our original funders was the Department for International Development (DFID) which has adopted a very progressive line around HIV and is a staunch defender of HIV harm reduction, while the Home Office sees us unequivocally as criminals and demands nothing other than abstinence and the rehabilitation agenda, yet these are two departments within the same Government. This is, in microcosm, an illustration of the chasm that exists worldwide, the terrible lack of any international consensus.”
“The same point is also well illustrated within the UN system: UNAIDS, which sits in Geneva, has a progressive view on drug use; it has published reports, supports decriminalisation and drug law reform, and supports less repressive legal environments. At the same time, further east in Vienna, where The Commission for Narcotic Drugs (CND) is based, you can see the ‘War on Drugs’ at its most ardent. The global drug control conventions exist outside the structure of human rights, whereas the response to HIV has been predicated largely upon a human rights framework and principles. Drug wars have been systematically trampling all over people’s human rights and in recent years, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror have become intertwined; with enforcement very often handed over to state-hired, sub-contracted security corporations, it cannot be a surprise to anyone that, for the sake of corporate profit, nothing is done that might curtail a lucrative business. It is also clear that such commercial interests have a significant influence upon the actual formulation of policy within the war on drugs and the perpetual hunt for potential terrorists. The discourse around the war on drugs has become ‘securitised’; it has become, and is seen as, a matter of national security, indeed even international security. Yet the opposite has actually happened by dint of prohibition: we have given up controls; we have handed the world’s third largest industry to organised crime; we have deliberately destabilised states across the developing world; we have stigmatised and criminalised millions of ordinary people; we are fostering the HIV and hepatitis C epidemics, with huge consequences for health care; and we are throwing thousands of people into prisons, marginalising others and turing them into outsiders in their own communities. We continue to kill thousands and to trample on human rights the whole world over, all in pursuit of some kind of moral chimera which represents drugs as a grave threat to society, whereas in fact, the use of drugs has always been a normal and accepted part of human behaviour.”
On 1st December 2013, The Guardian published a leaked document which exposed the extent to which UN members are split over the war on drugs. The divisions are important because in the Spring, a joint statement is due to be published setting out the UN’s long-term thinking and, expected some time during 2016, is a General Assembly review that will reconfirm the UN’s position on drugs for the next decade. A number of Latin American countries, such as Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, are increasingly vocal in opposing the UN’s prohibition stance and the proscription policies driven by the major powers. They know that maintaining the current approach only sustains their countries’ drug cartels and the paramilitary groups associated with them. Ecuador is also arguing that we all need to look beyond prohibition and to address the demands for a more pragmatic and effective approach towards drug production and distribution, and towards the treatment of drug users. Venezuela too is becoming a vocal proponent for change.
The wind of change is also blowing across Europe and a serious questioning of the status quo is now beginning to take place, with Norway and Switzerland in the vanguard of addressing the serious health risks that beset injecting drug users. Even in the UK, authoritative voices are now being heard, questioning the current position, casting doubt on the efficacy of the ‘War on Drugs’, and advancing the pragmatic benefits of decriminalisation. Perhaps the golden dawn of empirical drugs policy-making is near at hand.
Interview Date: 25th January 2014
Updated: 29th July 2014
I recommend everyone to read Dr Eliot's interview with Paul Gregoire for PowderZine.com:
Eliot Albers is a Doctor of Philosophy who has been injecting drugs for over 25 years. He is currently Executive Director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) and campaigns at all levels, including the United Nations, for human rights and the rights of drug users. High amongst his concerns is the ‘war on drugs’, a war that has contributed to the corruption and toppling of governments; billions of pounds are spent on enforcement, on locking people up, on militarising countries, on destabilising states, while at the same time thousands of users are condemned to the margins of society, turned into social pariahs, addicts and outsiders. Yet no rational, empirical investigation of the question has led anyone to conclude that the current course of action actually works.
Photography: London 25th January 2014