Today, International Drug Users Remembrance Day, is one day among all the others when the people we have lost continue to pop up in our thoughts through little memories, good or bad. It’s a day to acknowledge and value all the lives needlessly lost worldwide.
I’m just one young drug user among millions, living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Each passing year, I lose three or four friends and comrades due to the toxic drug supply and the policy conditions and prejudice that create it.
The first one over the past 12 months that really shocked me and hit me hard was Jesse Harvey, who died in September 2020. It seems like everything we find out these days is through our phones or social media. It takes on a surreal, sinister feeling when you scroll and see your favourite harm reduction journalist tweet: “I’m at a loss of words this morning #HarmReduction has lost yet another one of its quiet heroes”—and then you realize you knew him well.
Jesse was such a brave young advocate, creating and effecting change as co-founder of the Church of Safe Injection in Maine. He was one of the first non-Canadian advocates I spoke with in depth as my commitment to international advocacy grew. We actually talked about maybe setting up a Canadian chapter, but at that time most of my focus was on working to open up our local overdose prevention site. Jesse was passing out safe using supplies, naloxone and fentanyl testing strips even when doing so was illegal, because that’s who he was. He talked about his battles to register the Church as a nonprofit and win it religious exemption from US drug laws.
“We’re not saying it’s our religious belief to use heroin. No, not at all,” he told NPR the year before his death. “We’re saying that it’s our sincerely held religious belief that people who use drugs don’t deserve to die when there are decades of solutions.”
His passion and determination to fight for drug users, no doubt dismissed by some as naive idealism, reminded me of myself—or of the advocate I wanted to be. I still think about him, and draw strength from his attitude, when I work in the North American drug-user movement every day. That’s the legacy he left us. I know there are a lot more people than just me thinking about you and missing you today, Jesse. Rest in Power.
My grief is personal, and colored by the knowledge that it could easily have been me. At the same time, it’s experienced by millions of others in their own ways.
The recent death that haunts me the most was that of my local close friend of the same first name—Jesse Boddy, who passed in February this year.
He was such an amazing guy—funny, thoughtful, and full of energy—and one hell of a baseball player, which is how we met. Every member of our drug-using and recovery communities here remembers him that way. He had lost his brother to a murder, which hurt him for the rest of his life. Like Harvey and me, he had cycled in and out of abstinence-based recovery. As his obituary put it: “He was a long-standing member of the recovery community and built extremely close relationships within it. He was interested in others and always found a way to bring laughter or a smile to someone’s face.”
His loss was an awful blow to so many of us. But I think mostly of his family—his baby girl, Lydia; his strong, compassionate partner, Nichole; and many more family members.
I miss you every day, Jesse. You are a huge reason why I continue to advocate, not filtering what I have to say. I hope I can make you proud.
My grief is personal, and colored by the knowledge that it could easily have been me; I overdosed shortly before Jesse Harvey died. At the same time, it’s a grief experienced by millions of other people in their own ways.
In the United States—last year alone—93,000 people died of overdose; more than 6,000 lost their lives in Canada, and thousands upon thousands elsewhere in the world. The tolls keep climbing, even when they don’t include deaths from related health conditions, deaths inflicted by the carceral system and more. Every single one of these human beings mattered, regardless of how widely or not they’re mourned.
We have learned in the worst possible ways.
That’s the message of the International Network of People Who Use Drugs’ (INPUD) #MoreThan campaign, which today highlights that “we are all ‘More Than’ a casualty of the drug war or any other label that denies our inherent humanity. We are all individuals with multiple identities, interests, passions and dreams.”
It sickens me that we collectively have to live through all this trauma and despair, and the burnout it creates, while taking on the cruel war against people who use drugs. I’m grateful to all those who offer support and strength in this fight.
I hope people take a moment today, as on other days, to remember the people we have lost, understanding that they did not die because they are a bad person or because they made a mistake. They died because the structures in place—shored up by racism and many other forms of hate and inequality—force harm against people who use drugs.
Those memories and that knowledge should inform everything we do. The more I think about what today means, it is right there. We have learned in the worst possible ways that we must accept nothing short of the right of all drug users to be safe, healthy, happy and unashamed of who we are.
Photograph by Mike Labrum on Unsplash