Editor’s Note: Today’s post in honor of Women’s History Month comes from Greg Ellis. Ellis and Heather Edney are currently writing an insider’s account about Edney’s early pioneering needle exchange work in Santa Cruz during the AIDS epidemic prior to the advent of protease inhibitors. Edney’s innovative ideas about harm reduction flourished in a male-dominated field and changed the face of modern healthcare and recovery. The memoir will be an imprint of Anthology Press.
There is a simple principle in the field of harm reduction that drug users are the experts on using drugs. But what exactly does that mean? Strong governmental and institutional pressures to uphold systemic standards and anti-drug laws frequently foster mistrust between drug users and social service providers.
In her soon-to-be-published memoir and harm reduction manifesto, titled Sucking Dick for Syringes, long-time harm reduction activist Heather Edney recounts the history that led her to bridge the divide from the shooting gallery to the boardroom. Edney, who was instrumental in building the pioneering Santa Cruz Needle Exchange Program (SCNEP) in the 1990s, writes about the intersection of drugs, sex, and running an illegal syringe exchange. Her innovative risk reduction modalities ultimately created some of the most revolutionary and lasting changes during the infancy of the field. Her ideas and techniques have saved countless limbs from infection and loss, prevented unknown numbers of seroconversions, and introduced the concept of holistic healthcare to marginalized and criminalized populations.
Heather Edney operated in the world of drugs for much of her young life before landing in Santa Cruz, California, at the age of 19—where she learned about the fledgling needle exchange program run by a dedicated group of volunteers. Edney employed the skill set developed from a childhood of sexual trauma and familial dysfunction, quickly rising to a leadership position and ultimately creating an internationally renowned needle exchange model.
Writing in lower case letters à la e.e. cummings, she speaks honestly and openly in Sucking Dick for Syringes about the difficulties and contradictions she and many harm reductionists grappled with:
“we are not supposed to overdose, get the virus, miscalculate our dose and have a heart attack, nod out in a meeting, or let your girlfriend choke you until your eyes roll back in your head and you get real dizzy but it feels good so you don’t stop her… and yet, all these things happen… some harm reductionists draw blood from the people they are fucking and drink it, and some harm reductionists inject blood into themselves after drawing it up from whoever they’ve got their dick in. a lot of us cut on each other and don’t wear gloves. and a lot of us fuck people we know with the virus and don’t use condoms. and then we get put on this pedestal, cause we are ‘saving lives’ but what they don’t recognize is that we are fucking humans and we shouldn’t be expected to change our behavior when no one else seems to be able to.”
Drawing upon their own real-world experiences in the 1990s, Edney and the volunteers at the Santa Cruz Needle Exchange met drug users on equal terms and initiated numerous revolutionary innovations in the newly coined field of harm reduction. The Exchange, for example, taught users vein rotation, explained self-administered wound care, made home visits, provided safe drop-in center hours for women to avoid sexual exploitation/violence, and offered mani/pedis and other grooming luxuries taken for granted by the general public.
In this Do-It-Yourself vein, Edney and volunteer Brooke Lober co-created the now legendary zine junkphood, a user-produced educational publication focused on issues related to injection drug use. The ideas in junkphood originated from the everyday lives of Edney and the volunteers at the Needle Exchange. Their personal experiences with abscesses, lost limbs, HIV & hepatitis infections; their understanding about the lack of access to supplies resulting in poor hygiene and diets; their survival of repeated sexual and physical assaults; and their coping with the persistent deaths of lovers and friends; all guided them in crafting effective and successful outreach programs.
junkphood was one of the first American publications written for and by active drug users. Within the pages of the zine, the authors provided firsthand experiences to educate and embolden injection drug users towards medical self-empowerment—as seen here in the graphics about bruising and wound care from the 1995 issue “Coked-Up Puffs.” Keeping with their vision of a drug-user-led social movement, they wrote the junkphood manifesto:
The stories in junkphood come straight from young users who exchange syringes at the Santa Cruz Needle Exchange. The reason why we started this project is because we are sick of being told what to do by the ‘experts.’ They give us information we have no use for and usually it is mixed up with messages about how we should quit using drugs because drugs make us fucked up.
Being a young injection drug user and asking for information, generally from adults, means that you have to put yourself lower than them, and admit that you’re a fucked up, ignorant kid. That’s an ego-busting experience, it’s terrible, and we won’t do it. Instead of asking adults for help, we make up our own information and our own ethics. That’s what makes being a kid the awesome experience that it is. But sometimes, our actions are really misguided and lead us to do something dangerous.
We, as drug users, are the experts. All of us know bits and pieces of what is safe and unsafe, but because we are shoved underground, there is no way for us to talk about it. So we use drugs in silence, and sometimes, we get infected with HIV, and sometimes, we lose people we love to overdose. There are as many different drug-using experiences as there are drug users. The point of this series is not to tell other users what to do, but to get people talking about their drug use, what we love about it, what we hate about it, and what we wish was different.
—Heather Edney & Brooke Lober, Santa Cruz California, 1995.
Heather Edney and the SCNEP volunteers introduced many revolutionary practices into the nascent field of harm reduction, pioneering focused drug-user-informed programs for future generations to follow. The paradox of harm reduction has always been that all risk cannot be avoided—but that it is within these risks where the greatest strides and advances are made.