Pubdate: Sat, 25 Nov 2000
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: The Vancouver Sun 2000
Contact:  200 Granville Street, Ste.#1, Vancouver BC V6C 3N3
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Author: Frances Bula, Vancouver Sun
Series: Searching for solutions - Fix on the Downtown Eastside
Bookmark: Safe Injecting Rooms


Ute Sellin Is One Of Those Who Has Benefited From The German Approach --
And Perhaps Been Penalized By It Too.

For Ute Sellin, Frankfurt's drug policy has been both salvation and a
sentence to hopelessness. Eight years ago, the then 27-year-old was
picked up near dead in Frankfurt's infamous needle park. She had
sepsis, an infection that had spread from an abscess throughout her
body, and endocartis, an infection of the heart that addicts
frequently get.

She spent weeks in the hospital recovering. Since she had been so
sick, however, she qualified to get on Frankfurt's methadone program
- -- something that is only available to addicts who have
life-threatening illnesses related to their addiction.

Until 1991, methadone programs -- the most common substitute used
worldwide to try to get heroin addicts off heroin -- had been almost
non-existent in Frankfurt. Doctors said they would just encourage
addicts to keep using drugs and resisted them. But after heavy
pressure from Frankfurt's Monday morning group, doctors agreed to
start lowering the barrier. Addicts would be able to get it the same
day they applied, but only if they met the at-death's-door

That was the group's way of ensuring doctors took on the tough
addicts, not just middle-class ones who wouldn't disrupt their waiting
rooms. It's in many ways still less liberal than the methadone program
B.C. has had for years, but it was a vast improvement for conservative

Cafe Fix

Now, at 35, Sellin is still on methadone and leading a life that was
unimaginable to her eight years ago when she was homeless,
prostituting and dealing to support her habit. This particular Monday
in November, the 35-year-old Sellin looks like any prosperous
Frankfurter, wearing bright red lipstick that is a dramatic contrast
to her black leather beret, pants and coat. Sellin, an outgoing woman
with a brash and funny Mae West way of talking that she picked up
during her four years working as a stripper in Los Angeles and San
Francisco, lives in an apartment on the west side of the city, paid
for by the city's housing department. Her monthly welfare cheque is
healthy enough that she packs a cell phone -- a handy, as they're
called here -- and she earns some extra money legally by working in
the cafeteria and cutting hair at Cafe Fix, the drug users drop-in
centre that is around the corner from the main safe-injection room in

Unlike many of the clients, who have nodded out at one of the tables
in the bright yellow sponge-painted room, Sellin is alert and always
up for talking to any friends who drop by. She comes here four times a
week to get her methadone and, if her urine shows up clean during the
once-a-week tests, she gets to take more home for the other three days
instead of having to make the trek into the city.

She's had lots of leeway on the methadone program. She continued using
drugs for the first three years she was on it and she's had two major
relapses since. But they've let her stay on it, and things are pretty
steady for her now.

The Rest Is Missing

But Sellin has one problem with all this. Frankfurt has been willing
to keep her alive and off the street, yes. But in many other ways, it
has consigned her and people like her to a trash can. A heart valve
was damaged when she had endocarditis, seriously enough that she gasps
for air if she goes up the stairs and her fingers are swollen to
sausage size. But doctors have told her that she doesn't need an
operation; she can just keep taking her heart medication. She's sure
they say that because she's on methadone.

Canadian health workers say that would never happen in Canada, that
someone like Sellin would be moved to the top of the surgery list.

Sellin said she was also turned down by the local employment office
for a two-year training program in "media operations" -- computer and
design. "They said, 'Oh, it's too risky for us, you're a drug addict.'"

That's not an uncommon attitude in Frankfurt. Although many people
endorse the Frankfurt Way, even the most liberal will say offhandedly
that there's not much point re-educating junkies and coke addicts
because they're so burned out, they'll never be able to do anything.

That's in stark contrast to the North American individualist culture
where, as much as addicts are blamed for not pulling themselves up by
their bootstraps, there is always a prevailing belief that they can
overcome their pasts.

For Sellin, it's hard to accept that she's judged as not worth
investing in. She grew up in a middle-class family in Frankfurt; her
father worked in a bank, her mother at German Telecom. Before she ran
away from home at 14, rebelling against her parents' strict Jehovah's
Witness rules, she was a good student who took painting lessons at an
art academy.

And, in spite of a 20-year addiction that began shortly after she left
home, she's managed to pick up near-perfect English and relatively
fluent French. So she doesn't understand why the system is willing to
save her life, but not to give her a chance at making it productive.
"The first step is there," she says, "but the rest is missing."
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