Reclaiming Your Identity As A Drug User

People who use drugs often find themselves straddling two separate worlds. One, where they can openly acknowledge the effects that drugs have had on their lives. And another, where they are shamed and dismissed for their substance use.

Frances Fu is the former Pacific Region Outreach Coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, where she coached 45 chapter leaders on chapter building, policy change, and drug education reform on their campuses and in their communities.

Prior to that, she was a student board member of SSDP and a founder of the Northwestern University chapter of SSDP.

Today, she is passionate about working with communities to address and accept the experiences of drug-users. One of her most recent projects, the Asian-American Drug War Healing Circle, brings young people of color together to talk about and heal from problematic drug use and to discuss their identities as drug-users.

Frances spoke with me about reclaiming the identity of the drug-user, her criticisms of current trends in the drug reform community, and her own experience with owning the fact that she uses drugs.

 

 

 

 

Can you talk about the idea of reclaiming our identity as drug-users?

Frances Fu: For other movements — women’s rights, black power, LGBTQ rights — there has always been a phase in which people take their identities and turn it into something that they own and something that they can be proud of as something that has shaped their worldview.

Today, we have a world where we can say: “I’m proud to be a woman” and “I’m proud to be gay.” But we can’t say: “I’m a drug-user.” Or, “I love someone who uses drugs, and think they deserve to have a better life.”

In a lot of other movements, the things that people are fighting for are not inherently stigmatized. For example, the desire for women to want equality is not inherently stigmatized. The movement for housing — the desire for housing is not inherently stigmatized. Or, the desire to have a job that gives you dignity and respect is not necessarily stigmatized. But, in the drug war, the desire to alter our mind states or experiment with consciousness is inherently stigmatized.

So, reclaiming our identities as users means trying to understand why we are stigmatized and break it down. And through that, heal our identity as drug-users. We need to connect the personal experiences to the political in order to change people’s consciousness and build movements that will actually create change.

 

 

What criticism do you have with current drug reform efforts?

A big part of it is that I think we, as a movement, need to say that we are drug-users. And, put drug-users’ experiences at the center of the movement. The harm reduction movement does that well — with honesty and integrity.

However, in policy spaces, what I have found, is that there are a lot of people talking about the impact of drug policy on drug-users. But, nobody in that room is acknowledging that they are also drug-users. And that the reason they are fighting for this is that their own liberation is tied up in it. When people are not willing to say: “Yes, I am fighting for marijuana reform and I am a marijuana user,” their self-interest is getting in the way of building a broader movement.

 

 

That seems to be a common theme, even among drug research communities. And it’s understandable, I guess. It could jeopardize their livelihood in some cases to come out publicly as drug-users.

Yes, and I think that fear is something that has to be overcome. I think it is a legitimate fear. And, there are people for whom it truly would jeopardize their livelihood.

But, when you think about other movements — like the civil rights movement — black people cannot take off their identity when they leave movement spaces. For me, I can’t stop presenting as a woman when I leave a women’s organization meeting. But for drug-users, we have that privilege, where as soon as we leave an SSDP meeting, we can pretend like we don’t use drugs. And what does that say about us, and the legitimacy of our movement if we are not able to carry that identity with us through every part of our lives?

For me, as someone who has experienced problematic drug use and who smokes marijuana occasionally, I understand that the risk that I have of being targeted by the drug war is still a legitimate risk. But, there are people who are even more on the front lines who are even more vulnerable than myself.

Homeless users, injection drug users, black and brown people, people who are undocumented. If I get arrested, in the long run, I will probably be okay. But, if an injection drug-user does not have access to the services they need, they will not be okay. If an undocumented person gets arrested for marijuana, they will not be okay. It’s sacrificing my own self interest for the sake of other drug-users. Because, that is what the whole movement to end the war on drugs is about.

 

 

It can be terrifying for some people to admit they are drug-users publicly — especially to family members. What has your own experience been like talking with your family about drug-use?

When I first started smoking weed, I told my mom over lunch that I was now a “weed smoker.” My mom, her philosophy was always harm reduction. Ever since I was in middle school she would tell me: “One day, you might go out and party. And if that happens, let me know and I’ll come pick you up. I might not be happy that you’re drinking or using drugs. But, I would rather know that I can do something to get you home safe than for you to be afraid of telling me and try to drive home.” She had only ever applied that to alcohol because she only ever knew about alcohol. She didn’t know about any other drugs.

My experience with my parents — especially with my mom — was not that they were really angry, but that they were sad. Because they didn’t know what it was. My mom just saw that my eyes were red, and she would smell it on me. Because she had no idea of knowing what it was, she was just very worried after I told her. And that definitely gave me more compassion for her. Most parents start off by yelling and prohibiting their kid from doing it, then their kid in turn will stand even stronger in their own stance because of their parents’ resistance.

My mom’s sadness was really painful to watch but it opened the door for more conversations because I would honestly do things to try to make her less sad. I would say “Watch this documentary,” and stuff. And she told me, “It doesn’t matter what the facts are, I don’t know what this is. I am still worried about you.”

 

 

What advice would you give to younger people looking to have this conversation with their parents?

It has been a long process. I told my mom in 2011, and to this day my parents are still like: “We’re glad you don’t smoke as much as you used to.” But, I think young people — when they’re trying to have that conversation with their parents — need to understand that it’s a conversation that will unfold over a lifetime.

But, there have been little chips that I have been able to make. One time, I just brought home a marijuana nug just to show my parents what it was. My dad likes to garden, so I think just being able to hold it in his hand and see it was kind of cool. My mom was still a little afraid to touch it. But, being able to hold it and see it made a difference because they could put something concrete in their minds.

 

 

Why should drug-users want to reclaim their identity? What is there to learn from acknowledging this side of ourselves?

I think we are all drug-users and we are all addicts, in some way. A lot of people don’t have to think about it as much because their addiction is to sugar, or sex, or work, or shopping. And because these things are normalized by society, they don’t have to question, like: “Why do I feel the need to blow $1,000 dollars on clothes every time I feel sad?” Or, “why do I throw myself into work and forget to eat when I’m upset?” These are addictions that are often praised by our society — you are told you’re fashionable or competent.

But, because our behaviors as drug-users are spotlighted and actively criminalized, we have an opportunity to look at ourselves and be like: “Why do I want to do this?” There is room for greater self-awareness. Better opportunity to understand yourself and the people around you.

 

 

There seems to be a lot  to learn — good and bad — from analyzing our relationship with drugs.

Yeah, and I think a lot of people in the reform movement want to only see drug-use talked about positively. And, I am not in that camp. I want to see more nuanced talk about drug-use. We’ve already seen what happens when we glamorize alcohol and glamorize tobacco. I think there is a tendency in the reform movement to glamorize psychedelics and glamorize marijuana. But, we also want to gear away from that so we can hold space for everybody’s experiences.

But, I am excited for this moment where people are becoming more comfortable to express these experiences as drug-users. Simply by naming it and having your story  heard — that creates the room for healing.