ASUG: AN INTERVIEW WITH BETH JOHNSON - by Tom Gomez

Coalition on Homelessness, SF (coh@sfo.com)
Sat, 23 Oct 1999 14:09:51 -0800


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What is ASUG?
	ASUG stands for A San Francisco User's Group, and refers to a 
group which meets every Tuesday evening at 5:30 PM at the Tenderloin 
Self-Help Center.  We are a chapter of the North American Users Union 
(NAUU), and we came together to work as a socio-political activist 
group in an effort to establish justice for all, including those who 
use drugs.
	Towards that purpose, we have been working on a "Bill of 
Rights for Drug Users," which we hope to get adopted by various 
agencies, and eventually by the City's government. Our dream would be 
to continue beyond San Francisco city government until our Bill of 
Rights is accepted nationally or internationally or even universally.

How long has ASUG been around?
	ASUG was started in the early summer of 1998, so we've been 
meeting for a year and a half.

You mentioned ASUG is part of a larger movement. What is NAUU, and 
how long has it been in existence?
	NAUU (the North American User's Union) was started at the 
1996 Harm Reduction Coalition Conference.

What is Harm Reduction?
	Harm Reduction is a self-defining term, working towards 
reducing harm.  The term used to be applied primarily to the harms of 
disease or substances, but can be applied as narrowly or widely as 
one sees fit.  I, myself, apply the term quite widely, and therefore 
will work with any individual who has identified a harmful element in 
their lives and is willing to work on reducing that harm. That 
continuum can range from reminding someone to use clean needles or to 
filter their drugs for flesh-eating bacteria and wound botulism, to 
helping an individual achieve complete abstinence.

How did you get involved in ASUG?
	When I was first made an official Harm Reduction counselor, I 
did not yet recognize that I had been practicing Harm Reduction 
counseling all along, so I spent a lot of time networking with other 
individuals in the Harm Reduction movement.  One of these individuals 
with whom I spoke mentioned that there was a need for a San Francisco 
based user's group, and suggested that I might think about taking on 
this responsibility.  While visiting Casa Segura in the east Bay, and 
talking with Geoff Meredith, the founder, I was invited to attend 
their Substance Use Management group, run at that time, by Jon Paul 
Hammond, the co-founder of ASUG.  I talked to Jon Paul about starting 
a San Francisco based group, and we met several times before actually 
starting the group.

How many members does the group have?
	Well, we do not have official members per se, but we have a 
regular attendance of approximately 8-12 people, with the attendance 
sometimes going as high as 16, and sometimes dropping as low as 
three. There are about five core members.

How does ASUG differ from groups like AA/NA?
	In ASUG, the group's purpose is to empower individuals 
regarding the choices they continue to make, rather than judging them 
for their choices.
Since we started, we have come to recognize that there is a strong 
need for Substance Use Management (SUM) groups, and we are now 
working towards incorporating a SUM component into our group, thus, 
hopefully, allowing us to expand and offer more to more people.

Why do your feel that substance use management is often a stronger 
option than abstinence-based groups?
	Abstinence-based groups come from a single-perspective, that 
abstinence is the only viable option.  Abstinence works, for the 
long-run, for only 10% of individuals who have experienced substance 
use problems.  The other 90% will, eventually, relapse.
	Substance Use Management allows for the fact that not 
everyone wants to be abstinent, nor is abstinence a real option for 
everyone.  Individuals who choose to continue using can find support 
around maintaining control of their use in a Substance Use Management 
group. Individuals who would like to reduce their use, even unto 
abstinence, but do not feel that they are prepared to go cold turkey, 
can also find support in a Substance Use Management group.

In your opinion, why is drug use such a huge problem in poor communities?
That's a very complex question, and one which I could write volumes 
about without even finishing the basics.  However, I'll try to give 
you an answer short enough for publication.
	The systematic repression and segregation of people of color, 
combined with the government's actual transport and distribution of 
hard drugs in impoverished communities has allowed the problem to 
explode to epidemic proportions. A friend once gave me the best 
explanation I've heard for why the Feds have an organization of 
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms - what's the best way to keep poor in 
their place?  Provide them with one long-term way to kill themselves, 
and for the hotheads, get them liquored up and hand them guns.
	The largest difference, I feel, between use in middle and 
upper-class communities and use in poorer communities is that people 
in affluent communities are using drugs, usually, to celebrate life 
and have fun - while use in poorer communities usually degenerates 
into use out of despair, or because other options for having fun 
usually cost more money.

What can the concept of use management do to turn things around for 
the communities that have been most devastated by the drug use?
	Once again, it's all about empowerment.  One of the reasons 
that the government has caused the proliferation of drugs in poor 
communities is, again, to keep the people down.  When one feels that 
one has no control over ones' own life, it is difficult to care or 
get involved in anything else.
	Substance Use Management operates by having participants set 
goals for themselves. These goals can be as large or as small as 
appropriate. Then, by receiving group support while working on these 
goals, each participant has the opportunity to recognize that he or 
she really is functional and capable of making his or her own choices.

What are you doing to involve new people?
	Well, our newsletter is part of our attempt to get more 
people involved. Hopefully, the newsletter will reach people who have 
not heard of our group, and who may not be familiar with the 
philosophy of Harm Reduction, and give other people a chance to see 
what we in the Harm Reduction movement are doing, possibly inspiring 
drug users in other areas to organize and to stand up for their 
rights.  Ideally, I would like to believe that the work that we in 
ASUG are doing will not only change the future for drug users in San 
Francisco, but may impact life positively for the entire world-wide 
drug using communities.
	I have been involved with the planning committee for the 
"Bridging the Gap" conference, where I participate as a 
representative of ASUG and the using community.  I've also recently 
gotten involved with the Treatment of Demand Planning Council's 
Heroin Sub-committee. The San Francisco Dept. of Public Health is 
working towards making Harm Reduction the model for San Francisco's 
social service programs in general, and there is a need to get more 
people certified as Harm Reduction counselors, and to get more 
Substance Use Management groups going.

How do interested individuals get copies of the newsletter?
	While we are not yet on-line, anyone interested can receive a 
copy by writing to Beth A. Johnson at 290 Turk Street, San Francisco, 
CA 94102.  If it is within your means, please also send a 
self-addressed, stamped envelope. We will not refuse anyone copies, 
regardless of financial status.

TOM GOMEZ


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