An open-access archive for the history of drug cultures by Lisanne Walma

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, the team of the FORCE project at Utrecht University passed the pen on to Lisanne Walma, postdoctoral researcher at the Open University.

Lisanne Walma

“Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, there is the Junkie Union. An initiative from users themselves, users who are fed up with having their life decided by psychiatrists, lawmakers, aid providers etc. without these users being involved with decision-making about drug policies themselves.”

This quote is from the Rotterdam Junkie Union, printed in the first edition of their magazine Dope (1980-1981). The union was formed in 1980, during the height of the Dutch heroin epidemic. In 1980, the mayors of the four major Dutch cities discussed forced treatment for drug addicts. This was a direct reason for a group of users to organize in the Rotterdam Junkie Union. Across the Netherlands, multiple user-oriented organizations soon emerged, for example, the Amsterdam MDHG. Moreover, 15 to 20 Junkie Unions followed Rotterdam’s example.

Members of MDHG and the Junkie Union occupy the registration office of the Dutch local health organization GG&GD to protest central methadone registration in Amsterdam, January 25, 1984.
Source: Nationaal Archief

The Junkie Union became an important player in the Rotterdam drug debate in the 1980s, making frequent headlines by occupying buildings and providing harm reduction measures. The union argued for the acceptance of drug users and drug use, rather than abstinence. From the onset its members fought for the free distribution of methadone, better treatment of users by the police, and the prevention of forced treatment.

While the union played an active part in Rotterdam’s drug history, their internal workings have not been part of any official archive. The availability of sources for drug history in this way mirrors the above quote from the formation of the Junkie Union, because while the current archives hold insights from lawmakers, politicians and aid providers, there is less material available about the experiences of users themselves.

In the Governing the Narcotic City Project we seek to expand existing source material on European public drug cultures by creating an open-access archive. We are bringing together and preserving a variety of oral histories, maps, photos and other material not yet available from other archives. As part of this, we are currently digitizing private collections related to the Rotterdam Junkie Union. These documents provide a valuable insight in the local user communities of Rotterdam and their activism. For instance, we see how the union actively contacted pharmacists and pleaded with them to sell clean needles. There is also a report where union members give a detailed account on how they set up their emergency methadone distribution program between 1981 and 1982. In addition, the collection includes several editions of Dope magazine, which was distributed in the user community and included stories from Rotterdam drug users.

The private archives of the Rotterdam Junkie Union hold invaluable information, but they are also fragmented. For example, many editions of Dope magazine are still missing. When the archive is opened, we will therefore be inviting the public to contribute stories and materials through our website. In this manner we hope to be able to add more voices to the intriguing history of public drug cultures.

Governing the Narcotic City is a HERA funded project that is part of the research programme Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe. It is conducted by six teams based in leading European research institutes: the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI), the Open University of the Netherlands, the IB Hochschule BerlinAarhus UniversityCNRS Passages, and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU).