Žarir Simrin is among the few people with the courage and virtue to openly advocate for the rights of people who use drugs. At the start of the 2000s, Žarir was one of the founders of the Macedonian Association of Drug Users, and later a co-founder and president of the Association Pasaž, another association advocating for the rights of people who use drugs. He is also active in other informal groups with the same or similar goals. Žarir works as a harm reduction outreach worker, and describes himself as a polydrug user, an activist and a free artist.
Interviewed by Vlatko Dekov
Žarir, being an activist for many years, do you see any differences on the drug scene in Macedonia today and 20 years ago?
Although drugs have been used since the dawn of humanity, trends, the scenes, even the motives do change. Something that has also changed is the need why someone would start using drugs. In the past, for instance, drugs, mainly those existing in nature such as: cannabis, poppy seeds, coca leaves, mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine, tobacco etc. were used mostly for spiritual goals, or as tools to overcome certain conditions: sleep problems, milder fatigue, pain, to better experience and understand nature, etc., rather than for the drug itself, as is the case today. Of course, even today some people still use drugs for the former reason but infrequently and only in certain parts of the world: Africa, South America, Asia. Not so long ago this was also the case here, while the country was still part of Yugoslavia. Our grandmothers, i.e. mature and experienced women, had access to opium administered for pain relief, from menstrual cramps to headaches, and sometimes even used in babies to put them faster to sleep while the adults were out working in the fields, cooking lunch etc.
Funny, but my introduction to the whole story when I started experimenting with drugs was a bit naive. We lacked any information except that drugs were bad. In my case, drugs were directly linked to my own personal notions about the world, music, about books, as I was convinced that certain substances would lead me to gain bigger knowledge, i.e. liberating myself, becoming one with the cosmos and releasing my full potential to something bigger than what was on the table, a mere cog in the machine. As the years went by, different drugs emerged on the market, mostly synthetic ones, such as LSD, ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine. I haven’t got the faintest idea what came first, drugs or techno music, but I do know they were directly linked, at least here, and came as one package – hallucinogenic drugs went hand in hand with Trans or Techno music in order to better understand, appreciate the music. On the other hand people on heroin, i.e. opiates, were condemned, perhaps because of the different background, like rockers, metalheads or punks. And though the scenes might have mixed, one group was considered as junkies, while the other was just plain cool. In time this proved to be a myth, i.e. the use of drugs such as LSD or amphetamines had existed long before Techno or Trans music, ever since the hippie movement. From today’s perspective, it’s obvious that drugs didn’t disappear, information became more accessible, while drug use continued in combinations I would’ve never guessed, such as Turbo Folk with cocaine, heroin, amphetamines. Almost everyone started smoking and drinking, or using cannabis. Cocaine and amphetamines were the go-to drug at every party, particularly places where alcohol was consumed. Times changed, drugs were mixed and designer drugs emerged. In other words, drug use became a trend, used by those who can and have the capacity to control it, but also by everyone else. The terrifying thing is that we learned nothing from the past and the experience we had accumulated with even being aware of it, but also the experience of every generation starting with the Hippie movement, and long before that. The need to use something is completely gone, people use drugs but don’t need to, it’s done out of habit, or sometimes just to fit in a group shaped by the society we live in. If only our perception on drugs would change slightly, if only we could start using them as tools. Then we might achieve better experiences and only then will we be able to experience their full potential and allow their application for many medical conditions that remain unresolved.
Picture using a hammer not only for nails but rather when you eat, do the washing up, type on keyboards, dial the telephone etc. In addition to having perfectly hammered nails in your home, everything you own will be smashed to pieces. Drugs are no different.
Has anything changed in regards to safer drug use?
The prohibition itself, the so-called war against drugs severely deteriorates and diminishes the possibility for safe drug use. True, technology implies better opportunities, however, since drug use is prohibited and drug users discriminated against, demonized and harassed by the police, safe use continues to be inaccessible because users tend to hide, which is when drug-related harms, such as drug injection wounds and various infections such as HCV, HBV, HIV, occur. There is no way of knowing what exactly you are using and the purity of the drug. Of course, HOPS’s activities contributed to a positive trend in harm reduction, yet, as long as drug users continue to be ashamed of themselves, and remain the most stigmatized group of all, there is still much more to be done. On the other hand, drug users frequently contact HOPS after years of drug use, when the harms sustained are bigger. Let me paraphrase briefly Terence McKenna: “If you’re planning to use drugs, visit a library first and read something about it.”
People who use drugs suffer too much discrimination, partly with justification, but mostly without. Access to health care is denied, and with the exception of methadone treatment, we are left on our own to tend for ourselves regarding all other health problems.
There’s a long road ahead of us and still so much to do for people who use drugs to find the place they deserve in society. The paradigm needs to change, safe injection spaces should be opened, treatment programs altered and new ones introduced instead, particularly with regards to methadone treatment, a program lacking quality in its implementation in this country. On the other hand, it is high time the police started doing their job instead of arresting people for possessing drugs for personal use and not for sale. Prisons are filled with people, particularly lately, with people who use cannabis oil for treatment. All this needs to change in the future if we want to have healthier citizens. Running and hiding from the police in order to buy a medicine will only create bigger harms.
Do you think that competent institutions have changed their treatment of PWD – people who use drugs?
Perhaps on some micro level, i.e. slightly to the better. Treatment lists used to be closed in the past, in other words, it took years to get into treatment. Now you don’t have to wait long, but apart from this I can’t see any other changes. Some of my colleagues accompany clients to institutions to get the necessary documents just because the client is a drug user and the clerks refuse to serve them. Sometimes they make sure the client is admitted to treatment in a hospital because he/she were refused a hundred times previously for being a user, methadone user to be precise. Of course, this is never clearly stated but it is pretty obvious. Hospitals refuse to admit patients who are users, with the excuse, when in lack of a better one, that they might get infected. Sometimes users are lucky enough to be accommodated in the last room in the basement where the medical staff never ever make rounds. The lack of an institution for treatment, at least for now, of underage drug users is also a problem. This perspective is from the years of experience working at HOPS but also as a person using drugs who has lived through this. Particularly now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, users have been completely marginalized, in my opinion. Even in hospitals where we go to take our therapy, the behaviour is the same, “here’s your therapy for the week and goodbye”. They don’t work with us, there’s no counselling, it’s reduced to a one-stop system without contact, despite the 15 years or more you have spent on treatment in that hospital. Being registered at a hospital like September 8th is pure luck since the approach there is slightly better, as opposed to the hospital in Kisela Voda, if you can even call it one. The treatment of people who use drugs has to change and the problem has to be addressed where it is, not in the criminal law but rather the health sector. The misguided approach produces misguided, if not non-existent, solutions.
How does the general public treat PWD?
Hahaha… to paint a picture clearer, the citizens protested against the opening of treatment centres in their municipality. Unbelievable. The problems arise when people who use drugs are pushed aside, i.e. ghettoized, and the public suggests treatment somewhere far away from “normal” people. The main suspects in any theft or bad behaviour are usually drug addicts, which in most cases is not true.
People who take drugs require attention in order to find their true potential and interests instead of being taken somewhere far away, no matter where, as long as we can’t see them, even though these people are our children, neighbours, brothers, sisters etc. It is sad that the citizens can’t see the whole picture and that most problems are not related to drug use but rather to the surrounding rejecting and criminalizing them, which sets out their decline beforehand. Drug use is a complex problem, and yet the biggest creator of problems is society and its misguided approach.
What is your perspective on cannabis legalization in Macedonia?
As an activist for many years, any initiative towards improving the conditions for people who use cannabis makes me happy, however, after being a member in several initiatives and organizations I realized that the fight is nothing if not a dishonest one. Everyone has their own selfish reasons, in other words advocate for their personal gain, disregarding their fellow citizens, the patients in need of cannabis oil for treatment. Exceptions do exists, however I would rather not name any names despite the fact that they are the only ones who give me hope in the fight for liberation of this plant. Personally, I don’t like the word legalization, I believe it’s wrong and has the potential to create more problems than solutions. “Legalization” implies handing over cannabis to the law and giving companies the right and opportunity to manage it and earn enormous amounts to the detriment of the citizens, the patients and all of us, even though anyone can plant and use it. Furthermore, the word medicinal cannabis is completely wrong because any cannabis is medicinal, every use being medicinal as well. Let me state, cannabis use is the right of a personal choice and freedom. I find it easier to make arrangements with a dealer rather than a pharmacist if I am broke but I still require the medicine, i.e. the cannabis. In my opinion the right word is “decriminalization” in the first five years, and afterwards, depending on the results, I believe cannabis should be erased from the list of forbidden substances so that every adult would be able to plant it at home, just like people plant flowers, tomatoes, peppers etc. There is so much fuss about cannabis, after all the research available to the public, and all its health benefits, the topic is still hot and people are still imprisoned. Yet, no one has ever thought of apologizing to us for all the injustice we have suffered and the fear from this misguided policy.
How come there isn’t an organization of PWD in Macedonia?
Around 20 years ago we founded the first organization of people who use drugs in Macedonia called PASAŽ. We functioned for several years, managed several projects, but unfortunately we lacked new people, new energy to boost us because we, the founders, were also working on several other projects and had suffered from burnout. All the problems we were facing prevented us from continuing with the activities, although it would have been nice if we managed to save the organization. The finances we received for the activities were very limited and were often coming from our own pockets, which prevented us from dedicating the time and means to work and develop the organization. In addition, at one point we, the founders, came to disagree on certain issues and consequently the organization was closed.
Nowadays, we lack the enthusiasm, the energy, but also the “critical mass” to found an organization of users because users are ashamed of themselves due to the many years of humiliation and degradation. From newspapers to TV and jokes, society presents people who use drugs as the biggest problem of the state. How do we expect users to speak out publically if people go out and protest against treatment centres? They are certain to lose their jobs, be banished from their homes and struggle to survive. Users are on the lowest level of Maslow’s pyramid. How are they expected to establish an organization to advocate with when their most basic needs are disregarded? Differences can be distinguished from the past, for instance the middle class is gone but the poor remained, with most of the population belonging to this group. Most of the clients we contact are homeless, which wasn’t the case before.
How many non-governmental organizations helped improve things in relation to drugs in Macedonia?
Let me put it this way, non-governmental organizations did plenty to improve the situation with drug use. The problem are governments, i.e. institutions turn a deaf ear to the issue, even though they always present themselves as experts instead of us, the people who have been working with this issue for years and have visited thousands of conferences and different treatment centres throughout the world. With the help of HOPS and their needle exchange program, Macedonia hasn’t had a single HIV positive case among users in the last several years, as opposed to Russia where such programs do not exist and HIV cases among drug users are countless. HOPS is also to be credited for helping our clients receive the necessary documents for starting treatment, receiving social help and more respect from institutions, at least when accompanied by our colleagues. I would like to see more success, i.e. end criminalization of drug users, decriminalize cannabis, mushrooms, ayahuasca, etc. so that people who use drugs can be treated as other citizens with health problems, be competitive on the labour market, etc.