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'We are all coming to the same conclusion – prohibitive drug laws harm'

The people who used basuco in Bogota have similar issues to those here who use crack cocaine, writes Tony Duffin.

LEAVING MY DUBLIN city centre home at 3.30am, I kissed my eldest daughter Hannah goodbye (she had asked that I wake her) and headed out the front door. So began my journey to see first-hand the basuco drug crisis in Bogota, Columbia and to advocate for progressive drug policy responses to better manage the problem.

The trip began with an early morning flight, flying Dublin-Amsterdam-Bogota, three cities with specific reputations for the use of licit and illicit drugs: alcohol, cannabis and cocaine respectively.

Drug use is a global issue, which no jurisdiction has been able to “solve”. Countries can only hope to better manage drug use in their society.

Ireland is considered progressive

Globally, Ireland is now considered to be progressive with regard to drug policy, both by its words (National Drug and Alcohol Use Strategy 2017) and by its actions (Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Bill 2017).

While there is much to do to reduce the risks to people who use drugs in Ireland, there is a lot of good work happening and this is why I had been asked to take part in a drug policy forum on drug consumption rooms at the Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota.

Reflecting on the trip ahead, I felt a sense of intrigue and trepidation. Intrigue, as having worked for 24 years with people who use drugs, I am interested in visiting other jurisdictions to learn, and share, how best to support people who use drugs and who need help. Trepidation because I had some knowledge of Bogota’s difficulties with basuco.

One thing that reassured me though was that, despite what I’d heard about basuco, most people who use drugs are good people and drug use is only one part of their story.

Basuco: a cheap street drug

Basuco is the name of a cheap street drug which is smoked and made up of cocaine plus solvents, sulfuric acid, ground-up bricks and even gasoline. Basuco is a very toxic concoction which causes serious health and social harms.

Until recently, in Dublin, crack cocaine cost €50 a rock. We are now seeing a half gram rock averaging €40. There are also rocks selling for around €25 for less weight. Crack has dropped in price and is more accessible on the streets of Dublin. We’ve seen an increase in discarded crack pipes in the backstreets and an increase in people self-reporting that they are smoking crack. When people do use crack they have told us that they, typically, use between three and seven rocks.

I imagined the people who used basuco in Bogota to have similar issues to many of the people who Ana Liffey works with who use crack cocaine, that is people with complex and multiple needs.

Le Bronx

Bogota is a sprawling, wealthy city yet there are 15,000 people who are street homeless there. Worryingly, the Mayor of Ibague, Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, told me that if it wasn’t for the self-built temporary housing that has built up around Bogota, two million people would be homeless.

At 7.30am on Monday August 14, I met Marcela Tovar our guide, and translator, for a tour of the infamous Le Bronx and the surrounding areas.

Located next to a large military barracks, Le Bronx is known locally as the “L”. The four square blocks was a well-established area known for sex work, drug dealing and murders. It was also an area where people who were homeless and people who used drugs would socialise without being stigmatised, some said they felt safer there.

At 4am on May 28 2016 the police carried out an intervention. They cleared the 3,000 inhabitants from the four block area and secured the vicinity. Since then the buildings have been razed to the ground and nobody is permitted to enter the area.

The sergeant on duty, with permission from his superior, allowed us to enter the “L”. The scene was desolate and eerily quiet. The sergeant explained that he and his team were adamant that there were “phantoms” here at night – as he explained, the ghosts of the people who had suffered and died there.

Policing alone can’t manage health and social problems

There was no planning for health and social interventions in advance of the police intervention on May 28 2016, probably for fear that the news would leak to the inhabitants of the “L”. Policing alone cannot manage such health and social problems and it is unclear exactly what happened to many of the people who were dispersed.

Efforts were made after this police action to help people, but many had fallen through the gap. When you clamp down on an active street drug market you simply move it to another area. The most impactful approach is to ensure a planned joint law enforcement and public health response from the outset.

So what happened to the people from the “L”? Well, it seems that many were dispersed to other areas. We visited the Plaza España, a square, three blocks away from Le Bronx. I was informed that during the intervention there were confrontations between the police and people who were homeless there. Today it is a place for drug use and drug dealing.

Plaza España is near Cinco Huecos another area known for drug dealing in Bogota and there is a strong presence of people who are street homeless. Finally we visited the Santafé neighbourhood, this is a tolerance zone for sex work. Where women who use drugs, and transsexuals, work as sex workers. Many of the displaced homeless people from the “L” ended up in this neighbourhood.

Drug consumption rooms – An alternative for Colombia?

Having seen for myself the impact of basuco on the most marginalised members of Bogota’s society, I felt more convinced of the need for progressive drug policy to help reduce the harms associated to the use of basuco.

On August 15 I took part in the seminar “Drug Consumption Rooms – An alternative for Colombia?” at the the Universidad de Los Andes, Bogota. The event was attended by members of civil society organisations, politicians, academics and service providers.

I’m proud to have added an Irish perspective to the Columbian debate on drug consumption rooms. The Ana Liffey Drug Project works with people who are polydrug users who have complex and multiple needs. Many of the people we work with have had experiences of trauma related to violence, kidnapping, sexual assault, intimidation, family trauma, bereavement, sex work and social isolation.  In Bogota I saw a similar cohort of people struggling to survive and a similar group of people having a similar debate about how best to help them.

I’m pleased to say that we are all coming to the same conclusion – prohibitive drug laws harm marginalised communities and progressive drug laws can reduce risks to the individual, reduce harm to the community and manage the situation better for us all.

Tony Duffin is CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project.

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