Barbès, Gare du Nord and Porte de la Chapelle are some of the liveliest neighbourhoods of Paris. They are also gritty, noisy places and they form a triangle that has been the main place for drug trafficking and consuming in the city for the past 30 years.
A Drug Consumption Room was created in the area in 2016. It has a public health objective by offering improved drug consumption conditions for drug users ; and a public tranquility objective by removing the act of consumption from the streets.
Early 2020, I was asked by Médecins du Monde (Mdm), a charity which participated in the creation of the Room, to go and draw there to create a graphic reportage.
People at Mdm thought approaching the place through sketching would allow me to connect easily with users and humanize them, after they had been stigmatized so much in the media and in the society.
I knew nothing about hard drugs, except from what I had seen in movies like Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream which, did not exactly make me feel like learning more about it.
But I knew the power of sketching, how it valorizes people and places and even though I was a bit scared, It felt like I couldn’t miss the opportunity to discover a world that was completely new to me.
So I said yes.
On a March afternoon I arrive at the Room for the first time, with no training at all. My goal is to discover and understand things by myself, by observing and sketching everything.
I spend my first day there at the reception desk.
And guess what: the atmosphere is very relaxed, with cuban salsa and a lot of jokes. Not exactly the gloomy opium den I had envisioned.
Most people who work at the Room are either social workers or nurses and they switch with workstations every hour.
At some point, one of the nurses, Sam, insists on listening to some odd punk tune, and then just leaves.
The others rush to change the music and start complaining : « she always does that !! »
Everyone gets controlled upon arrival. Users have to state their name and birth date (most use pseudos).
Most teams members know everyone’s name and birthday by heart! Kind words and jokes are exchanged, one can feel the sincere care the team brings to the users, as most of them come several times a week or even several times a day.
All users have to show the product they are going to use and the consumption is systematically monitored to avoid overdoses.
To my surprise, the most popular drug here is not heroin or cocaine, it’s Skenan, which I had never heard of before.
Skenan is actually a morphine-based painkiller that people usually get from their doctor. Some of the users get it legally, some from the black market. One pill costs around 5€.
On a health standpoint, the good news is users know exactly how strong the pills are and how much they need, contrary to heroin which can be cut with other products. So, the overdose risk is mitigated by the use of Skenan.
The bad news is, they don’t use it as pills, but dilute it and then inject it for a stronger effect, which increases risks for their health.
Another thing that surprises me is how they talk about their consumption. Many of them say « I’m going to sort myself out ». It feels pretty weird to me that doing drugs could be some sort of a cure, but I guess I’ll understand later.
As I’m sitting and sketching at the reception, users come and go and I constantly have to interrupt my big sketch to record the crazy story I’m seeing or hearing.
« Twine » storms in, super nervous. He is long, thin, sweaty and yelling that « heads will roll ». No one knows whose heads he is talking about, but it doesn’t seem to be ours. When people tell him to calm down, he says he is actually calm.
I am bit scared but I can see the team is very professional and knows how to deal with him.
He leaves to the other room to consume. Later, when I show people my sketch, they all start laughing « this is good old Twine !! »
Oliver79 is theatrically explaining his last arrest. The police put him in their truck and asked him to get naked to see if he had drugs hidden inside of him… Which he did, but he managed to keep it hidden! Then they found out that he had crack hidden in his mouth too and they started choking him so that he would spit it out. He did, but the tiny piece of drug flew though the truck and got stuck somewhere the policemen couldn’t reach… So, without any drug possession proofs, they had to release him.
Oliver is laughing as he remembers the policemen’s faces when they let him go.
But his story is actually not funny at all. In this case, the police were not allowed to strip search him in the truck. It is only legal to do so inside the police station. Choking him was illegal too. But here at the Room, no one seems surprised: drugs users undergo police violence on a daily basis.
Gianni is taken out of the consumption space on a wheelchair, since he is very weak. Everyone here knows him. He bares on his body traces of a long and harsh journey with drugs.
But as weak as he might be, Gianni didn’t lose his bearings: he wants a TV!! And he starts asking everyone to give him one. Most people in the team tell him they don’t even have one at home…
You can feel that Gianni is a bit of a comedian and the whole scene is a bit of a drama. But then we start to understand: Gianni was offered an emergency accommodation in a hotel, since he usually lives on the street. It’s a good opportunity for him to rest and get better, but he is desperate because there is no tv: « If I don’t have a TV, what am i gonna watch? The ceiling? I’m afraid I’ll start smoking crack… »
One can feel genuine despair in his words.
But then the comedian in him comes back to the surface. He comes to me and says : « Hey Mat, you could at least draw me!! And I would be yelling I WANT A TV !!!!!! ».
Challenge accepted !
One of the major misunderstandings about the Room is about the services it provides.
Even though its primary goal is to ensure safe consumption conditions to the users, it has much more to offer.
The Room is a place where users can strengthen their link with society. Most of the people who come there are homeless and have very little resources.
David is a social worker who is specialized in helping users get access to their rights.
The first step is often to get them a post address. Starting from there they can get in touch with the administration to claim healthcare and the RSA, a minimum allowance of a few hundred euros per month.
David and the rest of the team also deal with housing requests. Since the pandemic hit, four hundred hotel rooms have been opened for drug users in Paris. Getting out of the street helped many of them stabilize.
Some rooms are also used for emergency rest, but people can’t stay in those more than three nights in a row.
The augmented housing capacity has been of great help, but the demand is still much higher than the actual capacity and the team gets real headaches trying to help those in need of a place to stay.
Another effect of the pandemic is that the Room now offers a new way of using syringes: users can come and get vaccinated !
After a few weeks of sketching and getting to know the team and the users, I finally set foot in the injection room.
Now it’s for real. I have never seen someone injecting drugs and I am afraid my presence will be a breach in the users’ intimacy.
But after five minutes in there, I can see that I was wrong. Users are used to the place being pretty crowded.
A social worker and a nurse are always there to give them the stuff they need and supervise them and users come and go all the time.
Users bring their own drugs, but are not allowed to bring syringes or other accessories from the outside. When they arrive, they must wash their hands and while doing so they usually order the material they need.
Depending on the drug they use and how they use it, syringes, filtres etc differ a lot.
Then they sit on one of the chairs and do their thing. They have up to 20 minutes to do so and can ask for advice from a nurse, but nurses can in no case manipulate the drugs or physically help with the injection. They are there to give technical and health advice.
On this first visit I do not allow myself to draw the users while they are injecting, or only from far away.
But I’m observing them out of the corner of my eye. I’m surprised to see that none of them are shooting from the bend of the elbow, like in the movies.
Some find veins in the forearm, in the leg… it seems there are many possibilities !
There are lots of conversations going on and a request keeps coming back: « do you have a lighter? ». It is used to dilute the pills (mixed with other substances) so they can inject the product into their veins. The team give them everything they need except the lighters, so they keep asking each other for one and when there is one, it travels all across the room.
When someone is done, they put the used material in the yellow bin and a team member comes to clean the table and chair.
When a chair is leaned against the table, we all know the spot is clean and can be used.
The team gives me the most common supplies and explains to me how things work: the cup to warm the product, the water to dilute it. Then they suck the product into the syringe through the filter.
As I am drawing the supplies, I am sitting on one of the chairs, just like everyone else. Team members who arrive in the room make fun of me: « You’re right Mat, the best way to understand it is to try it! ».
I really feel stupid and I try to argue that my addiction to chocolate is hard enough to deal with and makes me reluctant to try anything stronger… and everyone laughs at me some more!
I met Tom on one of my first days at the Room. He has been very nice with me and very eager to share his stories and experiences.
One day, as he is queuing to get inside the injection space, he asks me: « Do you want me to show you how it works? »
Of course I do.
He washes his hands, gets his supplies and sits down. He is using Skenan today. He dilutes it quickly and fills the syringe. He has many one centimeter-long wounds in his forearm and often uses the same spot to do his injections.
He is commenting everything he does for me to understand, but things are not great: he can’t find a vein and he is getting more and more nervous.
At some point he warns me he won’t be commenting anymore because he needs to focus. He seems very tense and frustrated.
Each time he sticks the needle in his arm, he sucks in some blood. If a lot of blood comes back inside the syringe it means it’s in a vein and he can inject. If not, he must start again. After 3 or 4 attempts, the syringe finally goes all red. He pushes the product in. His face gets red and sweaty and… that’s it.
He cleans his arm, throws the used material away and we head out.
We sit down outside for a while and Tom tells me how it is to be craving for drugs.
He tells me that after 6 or 8 hours without consuming (especially in the morning), your body starts being numb and painful. You get muscle aches and feel cold, a lot like when you get a flu.
Very soon after you get your shot, you start being afraid of the return of the pain.
This is why many users say they are going to get « sorted out ». Consuming drugs is how they go back to normal, how they « cure » the craving and the pain that goes with it.
I ask him about tripping, about the pleasure side of it.
« I haven’t tripped in a long time, and the tripping part didn’t last long » is his answer.
Tom is a hardcore user. Apart from Skenan, he uses crack that he smokes or injects.
He started pretty young, his then girlfriend introduced him to injection a long time ago. Thanks to the Room’s team he has lived in a hotel for a year, which has stabilized him a bit after being homeless for a while, but he still uses a lot and is very thin with deep, deep eyes.
After a bit of chatting I can feel him getting nervous. He wants a cigarette and doesn’t have one. Nobody around us can provide one, so he apologizes to me and goes on a quest for yet another addictive substance.
We’ll talk later.
The Room used to have a resting space but it has been closed due to Covid.
So now, people hang out in the yard. Before they get in, they sometimes have to queue for a few minutes. This is when tensions often appear: since they are craving, some of them get nervous and there is shouting every once in a while.
But Bader and Mamadou are here to make sure everything is fine. They are mediators and they come into play when things get a little messy. If they ask people to stop yelling, everyone obeys quickly, which is good news since the neighbors aren’t all very happy about the presence of the Room.
Bader and Mamadou’s instructions are respected not only because they are two big guys. It is because they have the trust and respect of the users.
Most users absolutely love the team members and enjoy chatting with them in the yard, after they got sorted out.
It seems some of them are very reluctant to go back to the « outside world ».There is one good reason for this: the Room is almost the only place where drug users get respect and care instead of stigmatization and violence.
I get asked a lot if this project, that has been ongoing for more than 6 months, is not « too hard » on me.
And the answer is no.
The Room is an incredibly lively place. Yes, people who come there have very tough problems and very harsh lives. Yes, things go crazy every once in a while.
But in the yard, there are joke contests, funny exercises, live music, cute dogs and incredible life stories to be exchanged. There is also solidarity, care and respect all over the place.
It’s mainly a place where people feel bad when they arrive and a little better when they leave.
It’s a place full of humanity in its hideous beauty. And just like my fellow human beings, I feel a little better after each visit.