Getting a Fix

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Last March, Bryan McGrath went to Albany to ask elected officials to overturn New York State’s hard-line drug laws. He went with experienced speakers from religious groups and advocates for criminal justice reform, but the speakers who really got to him were the children who talked about what it was like to have family members in jail on narcotics charges. “It really brought home who the real victims are,” he says.

McGrath, who is recovering from heroin and cocaine addictions and is HIV-positive, has done several stints in jail for drug offenses. In jail, he saw men convicted under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws serving more time than violent criminals. It left an imprint on him. So when his Chelsea-based drug treatment center gave him a chance to work on improving how addicts fare in the criminal justice system, he jumped at the opportunity. He signed up for FACT, Friends of the Addicted for Comprehensive Treatment, an advocacy group that trains ex-addicts to fight for change in a system that too often stands in the way of recovery. “If I can help somebody’s life change for the better, so be it,” he says.

McGrath is not the only member of FACT dealing with recovery, the criminal justice system, and HIV all at once. But these serious personal burdens don’t stop the group’s members–some 250, FACT claims, on its call lists–from turning out for demonstrations to change policies and laws that refuse to take the reality of their lives into account.

“Most of the people we see are disconnected from society,” says Howard Josepher, executive director of Exponents ARRIVE, the drug treatment center that launched FACT in 1997. Since the late 1980s, Exponents has offered rehabilitative services to drug addicts. But its clients often find that rejoining society is much harder than simply kicking an addiction. They face a host of interconnected challenges: difficulty finding on-going rehab services (for which Medicaid won’t pay), problems landing employment because of their criminal record, trouble finding a decent place to life, unforgiving probation rules and strict drug laws that don’t take relapses into account.

So when Josepher founded FACT, he designed the group to make political work and advocacy a critical part of recovery. FACT members say it helps them build self-worth and confidence to advocate for their rights. “I see things clearer now,” says McGrath–especially, he says, the ways drug laws and policies have affected his personal life.

Today, McGrath also works with the drug policy reform organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, writing letters to legislators and participating in marches. “Being in jail, seeing guys come in and stay for a long time for drugs…. It just doesn’t make sense,” he says. Drug recovery is all about refocusing addictions into new preoccupations. For McGrath and the other members of FACT, the best medicine has been a steady dose of advocacy.

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Exponents ARRIVE, the organization that founded FACT, is as unorthodox as its advocacy project. Established by Josepher in 1988, it provides poor clients with treatment services more typically found at a new age detox retreat–stress management classes, for example, that use holistic methods like meditation and breathing incense.

But the center is serious about dealing with on-the-ground issues, offering resources like job skills training, seminars on overcoming depression, and information on AIDS. That’s important, because many of these clients, drawn from Rikers Island or referrals from doctors and parole officers, need hard-nosed real-world help.

More controversially, Exponents also pairs drug rehab with tolerance for lapses along the way to recovery–an approach known as “harm reduction.” “Stark laws don’t reflect the middle ground people actually live in,” contends Josepher, himself a recovered addict. Tall and bespectacled, Josepher wears the shirts and ties befitting his role as executive director of a nonprofit agency. But the buttoned-up clothes camouflage a radical mind. Shunning the criminal justice system’s strict intolerance for drug use as unrealistic, Josepher believes the law should accommodate relapses. In the real world, he says, people have an occasional drink, or even a joint. He’d also like to see marijuana accepted as a way to reduce cravings for heroin–heresy among get-tough politicians and district attorneys.

Josepher recalls one client, on probation for a drug offense after five years in prison, who was making great progress: she found a job and an apartment, and she was reconnecting with her children. But when she tested positive for marijuana, the woman was sent back to jail. “The system looks at the person’s drug-taking behavior,” complains Josepher, “and not their overall life.”

Experiences like this laid the groundwork for Exponent ARRIVE’s turn to advocacy. “We were treating the patient, but sending him back out to the same dysfunctional family and society,” says Josepher. When an Exponent client joins FACT, he or she is told that getting a job, keeping clean and reconnecting with family and friends aren’t enough–recovery also involves becoming politically active, doing everything from writing letters to Congress calling for increased funding for AIDS research to demonstrating on Foley Square against the strict Rockefeller laws.

“It’s not enough to just have a job, then go home every day,” says FACT Coordinator Frank Tavarez. “If you don’t like something, you have to stop bitching and do something about it.”

For FACT participant David Wilson, attending demonstrations and doing clerical work are part of a deeply personal commitment. Eight years ago his wife died of AIDS, leaving him to raise an infant daughter on his own. Wilson himself is HIV-positive. “I feel that I’m doing this for my wife,” he says. “Every time I’m out there, I’m speaking for her.”

Tavarez believes that members are receptive to FACT’s style because it helps them feel like they count in a society that ignores them. In the program’s early days, he asked members to go to Washington, D.C., to picket a then-active federal ban on needle-exchange programs, which many studies show prevent the spread of HIV among heroin addicts. Activists from around the country were organizing a protest in front of Health and Human Services headquarters, pressuring Secretary Donna Shalala to rescind the policy. About 200 FACT members agreed to go. “People didn’t think I was going to be able to do it,” recalls Tavarez. “But we showed them that addicts can be organized.”

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Like many drug-related programs, FACT counts on former users to mentor current clients. Both Josepher and Tavarez are open with their volunteers about their own struggles with drugs and the judicial system, as well as their eventual success.

Initially, the group backed up these pep talks with a serious education in activism that taught participants how to organize petition drives, figure out who local legislators are, find out when public board meetings are held and know what to say when they get there. “I wanted to create more people like me,” laughs Josepher.

But in 1999, FACT’s two-year, $136,700 start-up grant from the Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation ended, and it had to cancel the classes. The organization now relies on donations from individuals, but these are hard to come by. As Tavarez sardonically asks, “Who wants to train people to be a pain in the ass?”

FACT has a lot in common with Housing Works, another New York City-based group that provides services to people with AIDS and HIV while schooling them in political activism. But unlike Housing Works, FACT can’t risk using one of the most powerful tactics in the activist arsenal–civil disobedience. Many of its members have criminal records and cannot afford to be arrested.

Yet FACT does take on issues Housing Works won’t touch, such as demanding that state prisons make condoms available to stop the spread of AIDS.

With this controversial agenda, FACT runs the risk of winding up where Housing Works did: on the enemies list of the Giuliani administration. Retaliating against Housing Works’ protests against city AIDS policies, the Giuliani administration pulled the group’s funding. The city even attempted to get Housing Works’ federal support cut off, provoking federal housing secretary Andrew Cuomo to intervene.

FACT does not receive public money, but its parent organization, Exponents, relies on city and state funding for a substantial part of its budget: in 1997, it received $450,000 from the city to provide HIV prevention services. “I have to admit I worry,” says Josepher, “but politicians can’t come before what I need to do.”

Ultimately, that means helping addicts recover and take charge of their lives. Josepher acknowledges that FACT is probably more successful in helping members control their own destinies than it ever will be in forcing government to relax its punitive drug policies. “We may never change things,” admits Josepher, “but we’ll sure enjoy the journey.”