I am a harm reduction advocate and anti-prohibitionist – Jason’s story

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My name is Jason and I have used a wide range of drugs over the last 20 years including cannabis, stimulants, opioids, sedatives, and other psychoactive drugs. 

I have lived experience of opioid substitution treatment and have been negatively impacted by drug use being treated as a criminal issue.

I have been involved with the New Zealand Needle Exchange Programme for approximately 15 years. I am currently based at the NZNEP national office as the National Harm Reduction Lead and previously worked at the needle exchange outlets in both Wellington and Christchurch. My role includes advising on drug policy issues that affect people who use our service, developing harm reduction resources and training for the NZNEP and supporting people who inject drugs with harm reduction advice and information.

I am a harm reduction advocate and anti-prohibitionist who believes people who use drugs should be treated humanely and that drug policies should be evidence based and support people who use drugs instead of punishing them.

I started on OST in around 2006/2007 after a few years of heavy drug use after a relationship breakup. I started using drugs mainly because I didn’t like how alcohol affected me.

About a year prior I had decided that I needed to make some changes in my life as I was regularly being hassled by the police for drugs or petty crimes to make money to pay for drugs and my drug use had gotten out of hand.

Because of the illegality of drugs and the stigma around drugs and particularly injecting drugs I was reluctant to seek help. My GP had told me I’d ruined my life and there was basically no hope for me.

I knew how much of a waste of time prison is as I had previously served 3 months (of 6) for petty crimes to earn money to support my drug use, so I had no desire to waste more time behind bars.

In prison I received no help whatsoever to deal with my drug use, I was locked up for 3 months and the day I got out went straight back to using drugs. I’d been arrested and charged in court lots of times but nobody ever bothered to try and help.

When I tried to get on OST I was told there could be a 12 month or longer wait. I was pretty gutted by this and as I didn’t want to keep committing petty crimes that affected other people, so I decided to start buying drugs from ‘online pharmacies’ based in South East Asia as the drugs were much cheaper than they were locally. I ordered quite a few parcels over a few weeks / months which arrived without incident but eventually customs intercepted a couple of parcels which resulted in them raiding my place and me being charged with importation. They intercepted a couple more parcels and did a second raid and I was ultimately charged with over 30 counts of importing class C drugs (benzodiazepines), 2 counts of conspiracy to import class B drugs (opioids) and 1 count of importing class A (heroin). Being arrested and prosecuted for drugs / drug related crimes didn’t make me want to stop using drugs, if anything it made me want to use more drugs to cope with the stress of it all.

After about 9 months, a place was available for me on OST (methadone).

Methadone suited me in a way, as it was one of my preferred drugs. I was really looking at it as a form of safe supply that was free. I wasn’t looking to stop taking drugs, rather I was looking for a supply of drugs that I didn’t have to commit crimes for.

Just after going on OST my importation matters went before the High Court, I plead guilty to the 30 odd class importation charges, and not guilty to the class A & B charges. The jury found me not guilty of importing heroin and guilty of conspiracy to import class B (Hydromorphone & Oxymorphone) x 2.

The Crown asked for 6-8 years in jail, but the judge could see I was trying to address the cause of my offending having voluntarily engaged in OST. I was sentenced to 12 months home detention and 400 hours of community service.

I ended up doing my community service at the local needle exchange programme. This eventually turned into working there part time and now 15 years later I’m still with the New Zealand Needle Exchange Programme as the National Harm Reduction Lead, it became a career in harm reduction.

Going on OST initially provided me with a free supply of methadone which meant I no longer needed to be involved in crime to support my drug use. It allowed me to restore some stability and normality to my life which meant I was able to pay rent and have a place to live, instead of living in my car and on people’s couches. I no longer had to spend all my time wheeling and dealing and doing crime to fund my drug use. It has helped me improve my relationship with my family (parents & siblings) who found it really difficulty constantly seeing me getting in trouble.

Being on OST has meant I’ve been able to return to working, albeit in my new found career in harm reduction. I haven’t been in legal trouble since going on OST, I’ve gone from unemployed to working full time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to find a career in harm reduction where my lived experience of drug use and all that went with it are considered desirable qualifications.  I don’t use methamphetamine, benzodiazepines or non-prescribed opioids anymore.

Being on OST has basically allowed me to lead a relatively normal and productive life, though my drug related convictions will follow me around for the rest of my life. I’ll never be able to travel to certain countries, it means I don’t bother applying for certain jobs as I won’t get a fair shot, getting insurance or finance and even renting a flat can be difficult!

Overall OST has made a huge difference to my life, an abstinence based approach wasn’t something I was interested in, if that was the only option I would have carried on doing what I was doing. I don’t get high from my daily methadone dose, I just feel normal.

OST was/is a good fit for me and has given me a platform of stability from which I’ve been able to make positive changes in my life. If methadone wasn’t an option, I think it’s safe to say I would have ended up in prison.