Employing people who use drugs in community organisations

April 20, 2011

Posted by Susie McLean

Senior Adviser, Harm Reduction, International HIV/AIDS Alliance

At the recent International Harm Reduction Conference in Beirut, Lebanon, drug users and employers discussed strategies for supporting active drug users in the workplace.

These discussions were prompted by the launch of the Open Society Foundation’s new resource Harm Reduction at Work: a guide for organizations employing people who use drugs.

This new resource sets out a range of really helpful tips and strategies for employing and managing people who use drugs – and the focus is on the performance of all staff – including those who use drugs – not on the drug use of staff.  It’s a different way of thinking about things.  If a supportive environment is established by employers, and ground rules are set – such as not turning up for work inebriated, no dealing or using on the premises, no borrowing or lending of money by or from service users – then why can’t more people who use drugs be open about their drug use?  Does it necessarily follow that if you use drugs you can’t work?

Getting to grips with this is particularly important in community based HIV and harm reduction services.  We want to foster organisations that are genuinely community based.  So it follows then that we want organisations that represent the community whom they serve.  If our organisation was serving men who have sex with men, we would want men who have sex with men to be on staff.  Similarly with people living with HIV, we want people with HIV on staff adding the expertise that comes from a lived experience, making our organisations more authentic.  It’s one of the ways we make the Greater involvement of people living with HIV principle (GIPA) come alive in our organizations.

So what about people who use drugs?

Because of fears about the effects of drugs, or the criminality of drug use, open, active drug users are rarely employed, including in HIV and harm reduction community organisations.  Many harm reduction organisations employ former drug users, but sometimes this isn’t ideal.  For two reasons.  Firstly, a former drug user is not strictly speaking a peer.  Someone who no longer uses might have strong views about the importance of abstaining from drug use, and that drug users should ‘be like me’ and stop using.  This might not be the most effective mentality for peer education!  Also, a drug user who has stopped using might find spending time with active users – including for example running education sessions on safe injecting – difficult and challenging in terms of their decision to stop using.  Sometimes neither of these issues are the case, and a former drug user can be a great educator and supporter.  But it’s worth remembering that for peer education for drug users, and to ensure we are meaningfully involving drug users in our work, employing drug users on staff can be a great way to break down discrimination and improve the quality of our programmes.  People who are dependent on drugs can often manage the effects of drugs very well, and can be valuable employees.  It’s difficult for many of us to understand this point, because people in our workplaces who are dependent on drugs are not likely to be disclosing this fact widely!

I think we need to set up some well informed policy on these issues in our organisations.  Obviously we can’t condone using on premises, and we need to expect the same standards of performance from people who use drugs as we do of people who don’t use drugs. But we can be supportive rather than punitive.  And there are ways to be supportive as well as responsible, learning from other organisations who are successfully employing people who use drugs, including in management roles.  For more information on how to introduce policies and practices that support drug users at work, but that also clarify the importance of no drugs on premises, and of professional responsibilities, see the Open Society guide.

For a more general look at drug user involvement, what benefits it brings, and how it improves our work, have a look at Nothing about us without us.  Greater, meaningful involvement of people who use illegal drugs: a public health, ethical and human rights imperative, produced by the Alliance, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Open Society.

The Alliance produces a series of Good Practice Guides, bringing together expertise from our global community-level HIV programming.

Find out more and download the Alliance guides on:

HIV and drug use, and
Greater involvement of people living with HIV

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>