Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem?

Thirty-eight days since the Occupy Wall Street movement first took over Lower Manhattan's Liberty Plaza, the movement has caught fire and spread to more than 100 cities nationwide and beyond. Polls show that close to 60% of Americans approve of the protests.

And while the movement's exact demands remain unspecified, the frustrations that spawned it have clearly struck a chord with Americans whose wages have remained stagnant over decades as more and more wealth has been transferred to the nation's richest 1%—who now own 40% of the nation's total net worth. Occupy Wall Street has succeeded, for the moment, in moving the populist issue of corporate greed and economic inequality to the forefront of the political debate. But its position there has been repeatedly attacked by opponents' attempts to paint the protests as a druggy radical carnival.

When the movement began, most of the media treated it as an object of mockery. Even The New York Times was slow to cover the story. Several days into the protest, the paper finally ran a condescending article summing up the encampment as "street theater" and the protesters as rebels without a cause, focusing on a Joni Mitchell look-alike dancing at the edge of Liberty Park in her cotton underwear "[with the apparent] wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968." The subtext was obvious: If these kids aren't high, they're sure acting like it!

But as Occupy Wall Street enters its second month without any signs of abating, respect is finally being paid by the media, the Democratic Party, President Obama and even some Republicans. Recent polls claim that 73% of New Yorkers support the grass-roots action. Zuccotti Park has been visited by a disparate array of advocate, celebrities and politicians. Caught off-guard by the protests growing popularity, right-wing outlets media like Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and the Fox News Network have worked hard to demonize the movement by portraying the protestors as, alternately, violent anarchists and coddled college grads. Drugs have been a reliable lightning rod for such attacks. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are criminals "lured by drugs and free food," the Post recently reported. In fact, the paper managed to locate only a single criminal among among the several hundreds of protestors massed at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan—their reporter must have worked hard to spot him. Undaunted, Fox's Bill O'Reilly went further, denouncing the protesters as "a bunch of crackhead drug dealers." His guest, conservative author Margaret Hoover, then irritated him by correcting him. "They're not crackheads, Bill," she said. "There's soft drugs—marijuana, stuff that you inhale. I personally haven't smelled it. My husband has." She then added, "It's a counter-culture collective."

Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem?

The truth is, that while the Occupy Wall Street movement is largely sober and self-enforcing, such criticisms have clearly impacted its organizers, who are awaiting the inevitable showdown with the city's cranky mayor, Mike Bloomberg, over the right of the unprecedented encampment to continue. After the October 13 threat of eviction—the urgency to clean the park was the pretext—by the billionaire mayor, the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly unanimously adopted a "Good Neighbor" policy that included the statement, "OWS has zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol anywhere on Liberty Plaza." Unlike many issues, the policy was not debated by the General Assembly. Instead it was presented as a fait accompli. OWS press representative Jeff Smith told The Fix, "The language of the 'Good Neighbor' policy was not decided by the General Assembly. The language was imposed on us from outside."

As I learned after interviews with dozens of people, it appears that the movement's "leadership"—a notably vague and nebulous entity—felt that the encampment dodged a bullet—and a likely bloody showdown with police—when it escaped eviction October 13. They managed o hold on to the park after an impressive show of resistance by the occupiers and the hundreds of supporters who flocked all night to the scene forced the city to back off. That attempted eviction sparked a round of negotiations between the real estate company that owns the park, complaining neighbors, the police, and the city, which resulted in the OWS's new "Good Neighbor" policy. Yet despite the "zero tolerance," policy that emerged from these talks, some medics interviewed at the scene admit that drugs remain a growing problem, despite their best efforts to keep the park clean in all senses of the word.

So how much of a drug problem is there at Zuccotti Park? That may depend on which side of the park you happen to be in. According to police and organizers, there are "two sides of town" in Zuccotti Park. The park itself is about a half-acre of granite in the midst of towering skyscrapers—a not especially comfortable or attractive public space in which thousands of workers in the city's financial district gathered every weekday to eat their take-out lunches. But for over a month now, almost every square inch of the space has been packed with a diverse array of people; on weekends, the park is so jammed that the police have trouble containing the human mass inside the boundaries of the protest. On most weekdays, it is navigable but very busy. But it's at night that the differences between the two sides of the park become most vividly apparent. The side of the park adjacent to Broadway, where the main protests are held and where the media center and library are, forms the clean, public face of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Long after midnight, a frenetic burst of activity continues under the bright lights.

By contrast, the other side of the square, adjacent to Trinity Place, has become an unlit camping area for overnight protestors, where sleeping bodies occupy pretty much every available space. Anyone who wants to spend the night can do so. Obviously, nobody asks people about their history with drugs and alcohol, or mental health before allowing them entry into the public space. The lack of oversight means has allowed less savory elements to set up shop among the mostly law-abiding protestors. Street medic Paul Kostry, a 27-year-old volunteer from New Mexico, told The Fix on Sunday that several drug dealers had taken over a few of the sleeping tents on the dark side of the park, selling drugs from cocaine to heroin to marijuana. "We've got our own set of drug lords here, unfortunately," Kostry says. "We know what tents they're operating out of, and we're doing our best to deal with them." But Zuccotti Park, he adds, is a microcosm of New York City itself—including people with drug problems and those who prey on them. "Everyone recognizes that we cannot allow the drug dealing, and there are certainly steps being taken to deal with that," Kostry says. "But we are here to help the victims of that. There's a reason the medical tent is where it is."

The makeshift medical tent—easy to take down and put up, covered on four sides with opaque white plastic—provides free health care to all the occupiers, and is staffed by volunteer medics of all backgrounds—doctors, nurses, EMTs, mental health professionals, and street medics, some of whom accompany the protesters on street marches and other direct actions, when they often need medical attention due to violent responses of the police.

It is here that people dealing with drug and alcohol problems can find help from a dedicated group of medics who treat people suffering from overdoses and detoxing from alcohol. Kostry estimates that medics treat about a dozen people for drug or alcohol-related problems every day. "We've had a few people who've been brought in after ODing on heroin," he says. "We usually treat them with Narcan, a short-term opiate blocker, and take them to a hospital, if necessary. There's ketamine and coke available here here, too—generally the addicts here prefer stuff that can be sniffed and easily concealed. We've also had people with alcohol poisoning who needed immediate detox. We are medics. We try to treat them on site, stabilize them, and get them the help they need. We heavily discourage them from using in the park. It's certainly not something we support."

A week ago last Monday night the NYPD made a surprise attempt to dismantle the medical tent, claiming that it constituted a "structure," which is not permitted in the camp. Ed Mortimer, a street medic who specializes in drug and alcohol treatment, was asleep next to the tent at 11:30 pm when a NYPD lieutenant woke him, saying that they were going to take down the tent. Medics and occupiers formed a nonviolent human chain around the tent six people deep. Mortimer looked across the square, and there was Jessie Jackson, coming to join the protest. Jackson linked arms with the medics protecting the tent, saying, "I'm not visiting, I'm occupying." Under the gaze of the media, the NYPD retreated without a word.

Days later, Mortimer, joined by Frank White, a volunteer medic with a background in mental health, sat down with The Fix to talk frankly about drugs in Liberty Plaza. Mortimer has been living on the square for much of the occupation, after he answered a call for street medics to help the movement. Mortimer is a trained street medic, one of many gnarly and stalwart veterans of the protest scene who form an underground collaborative of more or less medically savvy people who get their qualifications more from experience than from classrooms. White, a relative newcomer after four nights, is a mental health counselor from Connecticut who became the de facto point person for drugs and alcohol issues.

"We have a slice of society out here," says Mortimer. "We don't have a lot of people who have problems with drugs and alcohol"—but, then again, all are welcome to join the movement. "You're not supposed to be drinking and drugging on the square," he says. "When we see that, we try to convince people to leave, explaining that it hurts the movement. To be uncontrollable, that undermines the movement." Drug using and dealing would also give the cops an excuse to search and arrest occupiers.

White adds that "most of the people I have to intervene with are fighting against a system that has been beating them down for their whole lives. So some of them have emotional problems, and some of them address those problems with drugs and alcohol." Although the movement needs to maintain a sober face, it isn't about judging those people for their histories or their habits. But people who use are generally asked to use outside the park. "And there are some people who come here who have severe mental health issues. They have the best of intentions, and they are in the same 99%," White says, carefully avoiding the terms "the homeless" or "street people" while speaking of them.

Medical resources are limited. During the day, volunteer doctors and nurses are available to write prescriptions. As medics, Mortimer and White do their best to head off emergencies or less serious problems with drugs and alcohol through strategic interventions and, more generally, through open discussion of the issue, so that people don't feel they have to hide their use and only come to the medics when things go bad. They are committed to doing everything within their power to keep from having to institutionalize people who display mental-health problems.

Volunteers include members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who do outreach and distribute AA literature. Mortimer has also coordinated unofficial AA meetings, which are "just like any other AA meeting, the only difference is that they're fluid. If we need to have a Big Book meeting, we'll have a Big Book meeting. If we need steps, we'll have a [twelve] steps meeting." He hopes to make the meetings "official" by proposing them at the General Assembly and getting them on the schedule on the new giant blackboard that has recently appeared in front of the media station at the top of the park.

Patients dealing with "severe inebriation," as Mortimer puts it, are not simply expelled from the square but are instead transported to the medical tent, where volunteers take care of them and try to explain how drug and alcohol use at the park hurts the movement. So far, says Mortimer, he has not come across anyone whose life was in imminent danger due to drug or alcohol use, though other medics say that several people have been rushed to the hospital. Early in the occupation, there were widespread media reports that there had been a drug "overdose" in Zuccotti Park, a term that immediately brings heroin to mind. In truth, the person had been "Robotripping"—drinking cough syrup—and had come to a medic who was not trained in responding to drug use and who introduced the term "overdose" into the rumor mill around the park—and the New York Post. Mortimer assures me that the Robotripping patient "was never in danger of dying" and was taken by ambulance to a local emergency room.

Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem?

Though the police attempted to dismantle the medical tent on Monday as a way of undermining the protesters' staying power, Mortimer says that most of the officers stationed around the square understand and respect his role as a street medic. "Street medics exist because the poor don't have access to medical care," he says, explaining that his trainer in street medicine was one of the first people to set up a medical tent when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. "As street medics, we would like to see free medical care for everyone, without a corporation standing in between patients and their medicines."

For most of the volunteers who staff the facility, becoming a street medic is itself a nonviolent protest against a medical system that often ignores those without insurance or private resources. Street medicine came into being at and after the "battle of Seattle" against the WTO talks in 1999, when activists were teargassed by the Seattle Police Department and the National Guard. After that event, protest organizers realized that they needed to bring their own medical care with them to the protest, so they started short but intensive training sessions to become activist medics. Partly because they only have limited (varying) degrees of access to conventional resources like prescription drugs—and partly because of their own values—street medics often rely on herbal and traditional medicines. They know how to flush out eyes after a teargassing or pepper-spraying. They know how to bind wounds and treat contusions in the field. At Occupy Wall Street, they serve an important comfort function as well as medical care: they provide herbal teas, aspirin, band-aids, blankets and hand-sanitizers. They help the "comfort" team keep participants warm and safe as possible.

Different medics see—or tell reporters—OWS's drug problem differently. Kostry's account of drug dealers selling a wide variety of substances as well as an incidence of drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning differs from the markedly more sober scene described by Mortimer and White, who failed to mention dealers or overdoses. Messages left for all three sources before press time were not returned, but the presence of drugs at the occupation is one that will certainly remain a hot-button issue in the days to come, one that The Fix will follow closely. Requests to the NYPD for an interview to get its reports of drug use and drug dealing, including arrests made, if any, have yet to be answered.

Susan Howard of the New York Lawyer's Guild, which represents many protesters who have been arrested, says that the NLG is not representing anyone on drug charges, and that they know nothing about any drug activity at the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

By all accounts, the vast majority of protestors on the square respect the ban on drugs and alcohol. A casual observer is likely never to see drug use or dealing, and those who flout the "no drugs" policy are usually confronted by fellow protestors. On a recent weekend, before the "Good Neighbor" policy was implemented, a man standing next to me at a General Assembly took out a joint, lit up, and began taking a few puffs. A protester behind him immediately asked him to put out the joint. He quickly complied. Soon after, the facilitator made an announcement asking people to do drugs elsewhere on their own time, saying that "we want everyone to feel comfortable in this space."

I spent yesterday at Zuccotti Park interviewing protesters in an attempt to get a more detailed and coherent picture. Not surprisingly, very few people claimed that they used drugs. But there were notable exceptions. Sonya Zink, who has been present at the occupation since it starte, told me that last night there were persistent rumors that the police were going to raid her corner of the park for drugs, but that nothing happened. When asked about the presence of heroin, coke, crack and other hard drugs, she said that they "weren't a problem"—and then she made the surprising admission that she smokes pot openly in the park: "It's an activism thing for me," Zink told me. "I smoke right here on my bed when I do, and I want them to come arrest me for it. A lot of people are smoking weed out here for activism reasons, not because they're trying to drop out, but because we think that weed should be legal and alcohol should be illegal."

I also met a heroin user named Jonathan who has been on the park for 14 days. He told me that he doesn't use in the park "because this isn't the place for it." Instead he goes "down by the piers." He also claimed that no one in the park is selling any drug except pot.

Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem?

How to handle drugs and alcohol is a hot-button issue that each autonomous Occupy encampment deals with in its own way. At Occupy Oakland, the city's police officials blamed "rats, alcohol, and illegal drug use" as a rationale to shut down the tent city that sprung up there earlier this month. Similarly, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper used drugs as an excuse to shut down the camp in his city. As hundreds of Denver cops moved into to end the protest, 23 people were arrested, none for drugs. In Boston, police have arrested just one couple for heroin possession. But tensions over the issue are running higher at Occupy Los Angeles, where some participants say that drug use in the encampment is becoming too common. "Everybody is pretty much partying it up," said Rachel Goldie, 20, who recently left an LA rally in disgust.

But John Beddle, an EMT at Zuccotti Park, explains it this way: "We don't say that we're going to have a party and change the world. We say, "Let's change the world and then have a party.'" And a press representative for OLA said that while they, too, were doing their best to keep the LA site clean, "drugs are an undeniable fact of life at any large gathering of people, from concerts to ball games. It's unrealistic for people to tar an entire movement for every infraction, when the police can't even keep drugs out of jail."

Yet drugs—and the attendant dangers and prejudices—will remain high on the list of reasons for police raiding occupations, arresting protesters, and evicting encampments. The occupiers' prevailing practice of self-policing and friendly persuasion, however noble, is already—-inevitably—falling short of effectively enforcing the official zero tolerance policy. In the days ahead, we will report on how this conflict develops and is dealt with around the country in Occupy Wall Street's inspiring experiments in true democracy.


Does Occupy Wall Street Have a Drug Problem?Republished with permission from TheFix.com, a daily website about alcoholism, addiction, recovery and the drug war. Authored by Jed Bickman.
Photos at top via bobjagendorf/Flickr and linc4justice/Flickr. Other photos via Getty and AP.