Years ago, Bridgeport attorney Sylvester Salcedo visited Frankfurt, Germany, one of many stops on a quest to understand how other countries tackled the war on drugs.
He carried with him a crumpled-up piece of paper with an address. When he found the building, known as a consumption center, it looked unassuming: a brick-and-mortar structure with a bed of flowers in the front yard. As Salcedo chatted with social workers, a slender, well-dressed woman with a briefcase walked in. She was a big-time banker. And she was addicted to heroin.
As the center’s staff explained, she came in every day at 9 a.m. sharp, rolled up her sleeve and injected a controlled dosage of pharmaceutical-grade heroin. She’d wait for 20 minutes, have some coffee or tea with a pastry, thank the staff and then head to work. She’d return at 5 p.m. for her second dose, before boarding a commuter rail for home and cook dinner for her kids and husband. She was, by all accounts, a functional addict.
It wasn’t exactly what Salcedo expected to find at a legal dope dispensary. “It was like Starbucks,” he said. “Café tables, couches, a coffee machine, cakes and cookies in display case.”
More often, heroin doesn’t evoke images of your neighborhood barista. It is thought of as a drug used by streetwalkers or scruffy homeless people who use welfare and Social Security checks to score smack. They live on society’s fringes, on rough inner-city blocks where syringes litter sidewalks and dealers operate in an open marketplace like brokers peddling stocks.
Some of these people have been clients of Salcedo’s law practice. Now he says he wants to help them in a different way, putting into practice what he’s learned in Europe and as a member of the U.S. military.
Salcedo went public with his proposals at a mid-April public information session on the growing heroin addiction epidemic. The gathering, held in Waterbury and sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, featured lawmakers, law enforcement officials and public health advocates. But it was Salcedo who turned heads by suggesting the state consider decriminalizing heroin and creating safe-injection sites.
He has one additional ambitious idea—to unionize heroin users.
For many Americans, the overdose death of acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman crystallized the fact that the easy availability and low cost of heroin had resulted in an escalating public health crisis.
In the U.S. in 2012, 669,000 people reported using heroin, up from 620,000 in 2011 and 373,000 in 2007, according to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. In Connecticut alone, 257 people died from heroin-related overdoses in 2013, up from 174 in 2012. That’s a jump of more than 47 percent in just one year.
For every Hoffman, Salcedo said, there are hundreds of others who don’t register a blip on America’s sympathy meter.
Among the users Salcedo has represented is a stripper who made $300 a day. A few years ago, she found herself in a pinch after police converged on her and her boyfriend, in possession of a small amount of heroin.
What the judicial system didn’t know—and largely didn’t care to know, according to Salcedo—was that she used a chunk of the money made as an exotic dancer to support her infirm mother, who was homebound. When the dancer was sent away to prison for a year, the older woman had to be placed in the care of the state Department of Social Services.
The example illustrates Salcedo’s dim view of America’s war on drugs. In the end, he said, fighting narcotics trafficking and use is far less efficient than similar harm-reduction models popularized in Canada and Europe. He says it’s wasteful to throw more federal money at the alphabet soup of federal and local law enforcement agencies.
But what Salcedo proposes in its place—decriminalization and safe-injection sites—has current and former prosecutors and other antidrug crusaders rolling their eyes.
“My question is this: To what extent would it contribute to an increase in heroin dependency,” said Jake Donovan, a prosecutor in Connecticut in the late 1970s and early ’80s. “I’m not a sociologist, but I suppose, to the extent that it makes it more socially acceptable, if it does at all, that could be a problem.”
Knowing his proposals could be unpopular, Salcedo has split from his longtime law partner, Fransica Hodges, to venture out into solo practice. He’s not taking on any additional cases this year, as part of a one-year sabbatical his wife granted him to chase his passion project: the Connecticut Heroin Users Union.
“We at CHUU want to be able to prevent [overdoses],” Salcedo says. As a heroin user, “you should not have to live a secret life. That’s the key about creating this body, this union of people, who share this experience. Is there a [Narcotics Anonymous] for active heroin users? Yeah, if you’re trying to [stop using the drug].”
Salcedo said many addicts just pretend to try to kick the habit, and attend drug treatment programs only to avoid violating terms of their probation. “I’m saying, ‘Release them from the lie. Let them come out of the shadows. Let them be truthful to themselves. And let them come speak to me.’”
A former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, Salcedo spent three years in the mid-1990s working with Joint Task Force Six, a specialized Defense Department unit. Its primary function was coordinating with federal and law enforcement agencies to infiltrate and eradicate large-scale drug operations in places like New York, Miami and Puerto Rico.
People often conceptualize it as a “Tom Clancy-type” takedown team, Salcedo said. That doesn’t align with reality. “We were not the wall-banger,” he said. “We were, really, office guys.”
Because of the Posse Comitatus Act—which generally bars military personnel from acting in a law-enforcement capacity—Salcedo was limited to an analysis and advisory role. He couldn’t even legally listen to a live wiretap. Law enforcement officials had to record the conversation, FedEx it to another office to be transcribed, and mail it back to Salcedo for his input. He found the work frustrating, as often by the time revealing information reached his desk, the targets of the investigation had fled.
Suffice to say, Salcedo’s work as a “drug warrior” shaped his views on the war on drugs. Those views became the platform of a failed bid in 2012 for a state Senate seat; Salcedo acknowledged that he “failed miserably” to counteract opponents’ attacks on his proposals to decriminalize drugs and tax their sale.
No longer a military man or politician, Salcedo now cuts the image of a pitchman and a pastor, sporting on a recent day a sky-blue, button-down shirt and a tie the color of Key lime pie. His plan for drug law reform, more like a sermon, touches on its humanistic and economic aspects. But mostly, he says, it should be implemented because it’s logical.
Salcedo points to other countries’ models as confirmation of its validity. He carries in his wallet business cards of consumption rooms and safe-injection sites he’s visited, from Vancouver to Amsterdam.
Portugal, though, is his ace in the hole. It was 1999, and Portugal was in the throes of a public health crisis. The country’s HIV rate among drug users had soared to the top of the European Union’s list. Estimates put the number of heroin users at anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000.
A national task force was formed. It decided that starting in 2001, drugs, in small quantities—up to 10 days’ worth—would be decriminalized, meaning individuals found in possession were no longer jailed but offered a wide spectrum of services. Salcedo says a “social SWAT team” of psychologists, social workers and legal advisers was formed to assist drug users.
Some conservative politicians predicted that Portugal would become a petri dish for drug dealers trying to cultivate new clientele. Surely, the thinking was, Portugal was setting itself up to become a capital for “drug tourists.”
“All the conservative politicians were screaming, ‘The sky is going to fall,’” Salcedo said.
But indications are that the experiment is paying off. A 2009 report from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in the U.S., showed teen drug use in Portugal had plummeted. Previously rising rates of HIV infections, from people sharing dirty needles, had been stemmed. And the number of people who sought treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.
“The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, the author of the study. “Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.”
As for the union, Salcedo plans to identify, quantify and collate all heroin users in Connecticut and log them into registry. Short bios, under aliases—”John Doe, Bridgeport No. 1—will appear in a Rolodex of 3-by-5 index cards at Salcedo’s fingertips. Gathering all this information is the first step toward ensuring users’ voices are given weight in political discourse over how to reduce heroin-related deaths.
Salcedo is preparing for the worst—”I’m going to have to have the ACLU on speed dial”—and hoping for the best.
Truth be told, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen.
“For all I know, I’m going to get some subpoena by July 4th that says, ‘Attorney Salcedo, please show up at the courthouse and bring all your paperwork,’” he said.
He no doubt will face opposition from those who want to prosecute heroin users or get them into treatment and wean them from the drug using synthetic opiate substitutes. But for now, many potential critics have decided against engaging in public debate.
Several Connecticut state’s attorneys contacted for this story didn’t return phone calls. One who did, New Haven’s Michael Dearington, would say only this about Salcedo’s crusade: “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
But Salcedo remains undeterred. He said his plan, although radically different than what’s being touted by politicians and public health advocates, deserves a chance. “The reason [safe-injection sites] haven’t expanded like McDonald’s is because of the pressure of the American war on drugs policy. We’re the ones creating this suffering and pain across the world.”•