Work Friends is a new interview series that digs into the complicated realities of people with interesting jobs.
Even with glitchy internet and lagging phone reception Mark Townsend came across exactly as I hoped. Townsend—British, around 50, with a shock of white hair—is earnest yet mischievous, optimistic but frustrated. I feel these are the qualities you need to work in broken systems—or, rather, the qualities you acquire whilst learning to work around them. I like people like this and find their work to be necessary yet largely unpopular. Much written about Townsend confirms this tension. Some articles deride him as a bully, argumentative, or scary (as though an activist should not agitate), while a well-researched book details decades of revolutionary work that he, alongside others like Liz Evans (whom he later married), Ann Livingston, and Bud Osborn, did to bring justice to those who use drugs. Both things can be true.
Really, Townsend is polarizing because he is a leading voice in harm reduction, a movement built on the respect for, and belief in, the rights of people with substance use disorders. In addition to the social justice movement, harm reduction also refers to strategies and practices focused on reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use, like the cyclical trauma of criminalization and social stigmatization.
In 1993, long before the terms harm reduction or “housing-first” were popularized, Townsend joined his wife, Liz Evans, a psychiatric nurse and fellow activist, in founding the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), a radical non-profit in the Downtowns Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver that provides housing, advocacy, and services for the “hardest to house”; people with addictions often compounded by severe mental health issues. Together, Evans, Townsend, and their scrappy, resilient team ran the PHS for 23 years. Alongside a range of monumental successes for the rights of those with drug addictions, the PHS team is largely known for creating Insite in 2003, the first sanctioned supervised injection site in North America, which still exists today. The couple left the PHS in 2014 and have since moved to New York to do similar work. Some suggest they were pushed out of the PHS for being too radical. The organization is now run by a lawyer.
That Townsend is not a media-trained, sanitized public figure means he is incredibly close to his work; feeling the intense beauty—and loss— personally. In our conversations, I was charmed by his winding stories that featured a cast of characters casually woven in by first name: Liz, Dan (Small, former executive of the PHS), Phong (Lam, long-time member of the PHS maintenance team), and Bud (Osborn, activist and poet). He lovingly described co-workers and residents of the PHS as a “beautiful person” or a “close friend” and texted me a video the community made for him and Liz when they moved. He told me he cried when he first watched it. Townsend joked multiple times that he could easily “fuck the dog”; not try so hard, move away, and live a simpler life. It is painfully obvious he could never do that, not really. He cares too much. I asked if his work feels like “death by a thousand cuts,” he later said he is used to “being battered down.” He punctuated stories with emphatic questions about the cruelty of the world that could be read as rhetorical or jaded. I feel that they are neither; Mark Townsend genuinely believes things can get better.
I want to believe him but the reality is grim. People are dying, in both Canada and the US, at a rate that might terrify the continent into action, were the deceased not poor, marginalized, and using drugs. Instead, politicians, police, doctors, and, honestly, most of society, are stuck in “response paralysis”. Those in power continue to debate the ethics of helping drug users instead of facing reality. Drug use exists, and while drug use does hurt people, the societal response to drug use—the existential fear of criminalization and severe social stigma—hurts them more. A safe supply of drugs, supervised consumption sites, decriminalization, and a variety of other tactics are proven to have a positive impact; preventing blood-borne illnesses like HIV and Hepatitis C, preventing overdose deaths, reducing costs for the healthcare system, decreasing public substance use, and helping people get access to support services. Hand-wringing on a moral high ground proves nothing and wastes time. The solution is simple, Townsend says, “Accept there are people who use drugs, give them housing, and treat them like a normal human being.” This is a radical proposition. It shouldn’t be.
Sydney Allen-Ash, Co-Editor of Early Magazine: How are you doing?
Mark Townsend: I'm doing, well, I wish the world was a nicer place, but, yeah, I'm doing okay.
SA: Yeah, I feel like that comment could be in reference to literally any aspect of society right now.
MT: I know, it's upsetting. And I find it particularly upsetting because I feel it's all like a terrible circle, it's like a trick. We get sucked into these cause célèbres but I honestly remember when I was teeny tiny, demonstrating against McDonald's and the environment. And I'll tell my daughter about it, and she'll just not be interested that there was this similar environmental movement in the past. And I'm not interested in the past either, but it's like, sometimes you have to think, well, did we have this trick played on us before?
SA: Mm-hmm. I read this book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope In The Dark, and it's about past activist movements all around the world.
MT: I'll have to read it.
SA: Yeah, it's not very long, but I found it to be very impactful. I read it in the thick of lockdown last year, I was living in New York, and that book was a good reminder that change does happen, just mainstream media does not talk about the granularity of change and most change is so tedious and difficult and banal that it doesn't register as a headline.
MT: As anything, yeah.
SA: Yeah, right. I feel like I have this conversation a lot where people are saying, "It's cyclical, nothing is ever going to change, there's no point," and it's just really fatalistic, but I can't believe that.
MT: Well, I'm not fatalistic, I do things that I shouldn't even bother to try, you know?
MT: And I get in more and more trouble for doing them, like here in New York.
SA: Mm-hmm. Would you consider yourself an optimist?
MT: Yeah, I wake up every day like an Energizer bunny, I'm always excited. But then as the day drags on, my spirit goes down... But then the next day I pop up again, it's like—
SA: You're back up again.
MT: Yeah, that's what I'm like. And even when I have to experience horrible things, I can be pretty robust about them. And I can also not be that hateful.
MT: I mean, Cuomo was very nasty to us here, and, again, it's a granular, boring thing, but it's just like, why do you be like that?
SA: I feel like doing your type of work could feel like death by a thousand cuts.
MT: Well, it is. I hate that right-wing but lots of my very wealthy friends that are right-wing explain that nonprofits and government don't really want things to change because they've got a vested interest in keeping the poverty going. But it's like for me, I'd much rather just fuck the dog and be in Jamaica and not have any problems. I'm very easy at doing nothing, it's not like some big problem.
When I first came to New York, we did some work and one of the main funders for the state was complaining because we were mailing syringes and apparently that was illegal, which it isn't. So they called us into their office, and because they were a bit scared of me, they got their boss to come too. So there's five staff there that don't say anything and they've all got little blank faces, and they're all pushing the boss to tell me off. And he basically said, "Look, you cannot mail syringes to people," and I said, "Why?" And he said, "We've written your organization a letter before you were here that it's against the law," and I said, "It's not." And then he said, "But it is." And I said, "Well, show me, you've got all the money, you're the state, I'm just me, show me the law that shows where that's illegal, because I'm 100% sure it's legal." And this boss is seen as a hero in harm reduction in America, he's now got a government job, and he didn't say it nicely, he could've said, "Shit, I'm really sorry, Mark, I can't believe as a bureaucrat..." But he didn’t say it like that, and then he yelled and slammed his fist on the table, "You can't do it, because what if a child opens that package and then its on News 11?"
SA: God forbid, not the children!
MT: Yeah, and then I realized what you're worried about is that we've arrived here. I'm looking at their, in quotes, "harm reduction", and I'm thinking am I insane? Is there something wrong here, they're getting three million dollars and they're giving out only 20,000 syringes, celebrating themself on social media, and in the drop-in there's 10 men. And there's no women or no youth, but somehow that's good enough.
The whole of the State of New York distributed at this particular juncture 40,000 units of naloxone. And our group of two small syringe distribution programs, we alone did 10,000. Now, we're nobody, we're tiny. So the right-wing people, I suddenly realized, we're making them feel bad, yeah?
MT: It's like you doing your work, I can tell that you take your job seriously.
SA: Yeah, totally.
MT: And same for us, we were really working at distributing syringes, but the truth is, I could've fucked the dog and not bothered. The numbers that we already had were amazing apparently, the 272 naloxones that were distributed by that organization in a year. So, I find that bit upsetting. It's only been recently in the last six years I've come to believe a bit of that, that people don’t want change, and I hate even being the kind of person that believes it.
It's not an ideology I want to share but it is horrifically real. People like this boss sit as gatekeepers and it's like, I understand in your position. But also, it was not true, of course it's legal to mail syringes, there's a loophole in the federal postal regulations that I already was aware of. If you read the regulation it says you cannot mail paraphernalia. But there's also a section about that where it says you can mail paraphernalia if you're authorized to. So, my logic was: we're authorized by the State of New York to distribute syringes, so we can fucking mail the things.
SA: So, then there you go.
MT: So, anyway, I am optimistic. I am an optimistic person really, but I think you have to be realistic as to what's going on, what's actually happening or are we getting tricked? I really got tense during Trump because I just thought, can we ignore Trump? Because this is insane. This is like we're watching this pony show...
SA: Over here, and then really all the other shit is happening over there.
MT: And there's no room for it, there's no room on the news to understand any of that stuff, then time moved on and now we're here.
SA: Yeah, and I think now, especially for maybe some people in the States, they just want to forget that the past few years happened, especially last year. And I understand that, because I think a lot of people are dealing with very real, traumatic stress from the past year.
MT: It was traumatic.
SA: It was so traumatic, and I say that as someone who had so much privilege during the whole year. So I understand the desire to want to forget, but there is so much to learn from what happened last year.
MT: There is.
SA: But we just want to be like, no, just put it away, let's just go back to “normal” now.
MT: Yeah. Well, and it's not that he couldn't win again. With Stephen Harper in Canada, everyone said, "No one's voting for him," and he seemed like he was in for 12 years to me.
SA: It seemed like he was there forever.
MT: Yeah. But I've been tortured all my life, I'm a very unlucky person, because before I come to a country it's great, not that Obama was great, but it's all okay. And then I say to my friends, "You know what, in this election, someone horrible is going to come in." And it's happened to me everywhere, I've lived under Thatcher, Harper, Trump.
SA: Maybe it's necessary, like, for you to have something to rebel against.
MT: It's torturous. It's very upsetting.
SA: Yeah, I bet.
SA: Okay. Well, let’s get into some work-specific questions. What is your work-life balance like? Does it exist?
MT: I do try and make it exist. I can switch on and off in a good way, I feel. I think I can enjoy a moment, but that could just be simple, like I wander around looking at things, I like Central Park, I think it's a luxury item that I bike around every day. It's free and it's luxury to me, so I'm enjoying it.
SA: That's awesome. In the work that you're doing now—well, actually, it’s a bit hard to pin down what you’re doing. Could you explain the type of work that you're doing now.
MT: Well, I've just left my contract as interim executive director at two small syringe distribution programs based here in New York, Washington Heights Corner Project and New York Harm Reduction Educators. So, at the moment, we're helping other harm reduction groups and also trying to win an award in Cannes.
SA: For a film?
MT: No, it's a tech invention thing that tech people are into. So, every year there's this big thing in Cannes Lions where there are about 10 shortlisted inventions and if you get on that list you get to pitch it to these investors and they invest. It's a big deal. And somehow we were some of the people doing that.
SA: What was the invention that you were pitching? Is it NDA’ed up? Can you tell me about it?
MT: Well, no it’s not NDA’d, it was going to be copyright-free and all that kind of stuff, which is probably quite naïve. But it's just a dot. It's a dot that can go inside of a syringe, and it reacts to different contaminants in drugs, it’s called an Overdose Stopper. It can be printed inside the syringes, then when you draw the drug, it'll change color to let the person know the drugs are not safe. But even with this invention, I wonder like why don't we just give people the things they need in a safe form?
SA: Yeah, it's one tactic of many tactics.
MT: It is. Another invention we were working on, though not for Cannes, is for crack smoking. We wondered, could we purify this drug? Cause people would bring us their crack and in the smoke there were carcinogens floating in the air and we couldn't figure out what they were. Because, really, they say it's crack, but it can be any fucking thing really. That goes for any drug people are using. Anyways, then I thought they're all going to beat us up because if we purify these drugs, they're going to say, "What's this shit? All the drugs taste wrong."
SA: You’ll be taking the drugs out of the drugs.
MT: Yeah, they’d be like, what's going on? But, anyway, we were trying to clean crack with this invention. We made something where you could put the crack on this plate and it would make any impurities go away, and then the person could inhale the clean crack. But, at some point we were sitting there thinking this is crazy, we're building all this stuff but couldn't we just give them clean drugs? Why are we doing all this?!
SA: Yeah, like there is a solution that is more obvious here.
MT: Yeah, and actually we had a really beautiful guy working with us, a very lovely person, probably someone like you, he was pretty young. He was 24, and he was just starting in his industrial design ability, but he was a genius, probably now working for a big company. He didn't know anything about drugs, so his mum was a bit freaked out when she realized he was working with us like, "What are you doing, doing these things?" But at one point when we were working on this invention, he just said, "Well, couldn't we just give them cleaner drugs?" he arrived at this conclusion himself like, "What are we doing here?"
But anyway, we wanted to make this thing as a pharmaceutical intervention, a pharmaceutical disruptor. We wanted to make them very cheap and just flood the market to destroy all the pharmaceutical people that were distributing similar things for lots more. Because part of the problem is that stuff like this is expensive, and when a pharmaceutical company is charging 56 bucks—even though that's not very much—it starts to add up. Where the truth is, the actual cost of the chemical and the machinery was—I can't remember—I think it was 75 cents. People see these inventions as a way of making money. But we saw it like, can we make something cheap, distribute it effectively and save lives? Because it would just be very useful.
SA: Right, exactly. Well, that's all really cool, it sounds really interesting. So, that's the kind of stuff that you're working on right now?
SA: That's awesome.
MT: But I'm about to maybe work for an organization here, I don't know if they will actually want me to, but I might manage a campaign in New York State about decriminalizing drugs.
SA: That's cool.
MT: Which I'd like to do, but I actually think really I'm too extreme for all these people to be honest. When I start to think of how I'd do it, you know?
SA: Maybe, well, I obviously don't know you very well but I've read a lot about you and talked to friends about you, and part of what I think could actually work well for you is that New York is a much more abrasive, direct, confrontational city.
MT: You are right, yeah.
SA: And Vancouver is very deferential and polite.
SA: It's like death by democracy here in Vancouver sometimes. People will just say sorry until the end of time, it's a mess. So, maybe a more confrontational, direct style could work for you there in New York.
MT: Well, it could be good, but it's disappointing because literally, confrontation was going to be our thing. We built a $180,000 mobile injection site, and we did it with some artists, so it's a bit artistic. It's an overdose emergency response unit, and we were going to present it to the state and park it illegally outside of their main health offices with a 30-day deadline before we either donate it to them for free or use it ourselves. We were going to just randomly appear in the city and illegally use it and get arrested, or whatever. I wasn't too worried about going to jail, because I think I wouldn't really, I don't think it's illegal
We've been helping those people in Philadelphia to do injection sites, but in a way, they've done it wrong. They were too cautious. They should've just done it. But instead, they went to the courts and asked them for a preview of what would happen if they did such a thing. So, instead, we were going to do it similar to how we did it in Vancouver before the real injection site opened. We had built an injection site, it existed and it was ready to go. Then we then showed it to the politicians and said, "Look, we're going to open this, we don't care if you say it's against the law, we don't believe it is, and we're going to do it. So you can deal with that when that happens, you can raid it with the police." The police came and shut it down five times. But in the end, they just gave up the will to live because we just kept running it. So, I wasn't too worried, I thought, yeah, it'll be kind of great, the police will raid it, they'll shut it down and then we'll open another.
"People see these inventions as a way of making money. But we saw it like, can we make something cheap, distribute it effectively and save lives?"
SA: Are you talking about the Hair Salon, is that what that was?
MT: It was the Hair Salon, yeah. I had walked down Hastings for 100 years and one day there was this guy hosing down this building I had never seen, and he said to me, "I know who you are." And I was like, really? And he said, "Yeah, you, unlike all these other people, actually try and do something and I see all your buildings and you don't have bars on the windows." So we said to him, "Can we rent your building for a dollar?" And he said, "Yeah." And then we had to say to him, “Would you be into it being an injection site?” He said, "Yeah, for sure, I would." Because he's owning a building we had to tell him the truth, that's a lot of skin in the game.
SA: Yeah. I read a story about the Hair Salon, I think it's an excerpt from a book that I read.
MT: Yeah, but anyway, that's the story. So, I think: build it and they will come. Here in New York, we were going to basically do the same thing, and it's almost like Cuomo knew that we were about to do it and killed it. And now the organizations we were with, we aren’t with anymore. And without Liz and I, they don’t feel safe to do such a thing, so, anyway.
SA: What are the big differences between working in harm reduction in New York versus in Vancouver?
MT: Well, in a way I don't think there are, I just think that it's a time warp. I think in all cultures we go through the same things at different times, so we can’t be judgmental of other people. History takes time to run through. So, really, for me it was just shocking to be here thinking, yikes, they've got a fentanyl problem and they don't know it. Well, now they know it, but when we first came to New York I felt scared. And secondly, I felt like there's no distribution of supplies, so that was very shocking to me. I'd go to somewhere like Yonkers on a bus, with a bag of supplies and a suitcase with this girl called Sassy, and we'd open it up and we'd be swarmed and then there'd be nothing left because this group didn't have access to anything.
I remember some very young kid came up to us and said he just used the same syringe all the time and he didn't know anything about syringe exchange. The young guy had never heard of a syringe exchange, and he was really shocked! He knew he could buy them at the pharmacy but he couldn’t afford them. I gave him syringes, and then I told this story to the funder, to the government funder, and he told me off. He told me I shouldn’t have given that guy syringes because he’s not registered and it’s not okay and all that. So, that reminds me of Vancouver in the beginning, because when we started in Vancouver, we thought, we need to get people these syringes and the syringe exchange was draconian and weird. So, it's kind of like that, though New York moves forward a bit faster I feel, maybe because of that idea that you were saying. I think when they get a fashion into their mind, they want it.
SA: Yeah, I don't think New York is a very patient city. So they’re like, we're doing it now.
MT: Yeah, right, we want one of those. So, I don't think there's really very much difference, to be really honest. No. Not really. We have the same problems here that we had in Vancouver, people asking us like why are you doing this, why are you not evicting people that use drugs, why are you not evicting sex trade workers. Or the police coming and saying, "Look, that person pushed someone down the stairs, are you not going to evict them?" And it's like, well...
SA: There's a broader mission here.
MT: Yeah, and there's also a broader context, like why would a person push someone like me down the stairs. They're sad and upset.
SA: That context is really important.
When people have rough times why don't we just be with them in those rough times and invest in that person. I look at it like I'm accepting you because I'm as fucked up, who am I to be making this judgment about how someone functions or, like, who's a good parent?
MT: The context is very important. That is another thing with the harm reduction movement in New York. It's frustrating, you can't give someone a syringe without giving them this talk and doing all this and paperwork, so that actually is a little bit different. Though in Vancouver it was the same at the beginning, the people who had controlled the needle exchange explained to us that you have to do this quality intervention and be like, "How are you doing today?" And the truth is, that isn't how life works, yeah? So, it's a condescending intervention.
SA: Like, so paternalistic.
MT: Yeah, and in that moment, people just want their fucking syringes and to get out of there. And if they do want to speak to me, great, but if you want syringes, here they are. That's all it needs to be, and through that interaction you build relationships. So, New York is still at that stage because health people want that data, they see that data as critical and that it's irresponsible not to collect that data, even though they do nothing with it. They can't just give a syringe or give a naloxone, there's a whole, "When did you last have anal sex?" Or the one that used to drive me crazy is, "What was your sex at birth and then what's your sex now?"
SA: Why is that important?
MT: Well, from an epidemiological perspective, you could say there's some importance to that, but Liz just said to the staff, "You do not ask any of these questions."
SA: Yeah, it's invasive.
MT: Yeah, it's like, really, if you go and get some milk, am I going to ask you this question? What's the function of it? It’s like at the Salvation Army, they’re going to have a sermon and some hymns, and then there'll be a meal after if you sit through it and listen.
SA: Mm-hmm. Is there stuff that you're taking from your experience in Vancouver that you're like, "Okay, we could do this differently and better in New York"?
MT: Well, I think you can always learn more. But there's a level here where it is so basic that there's not much to learn in what you need to do now. It is just simple. Accept there are people who use drugs, give them housing, and treat them like a normal human being.
SA: How do you stick with this kind of work? It must be really sad sometimes and exhausting. But also maybe partially energizing? I feel like you get a little bit of a kick out of being the rebel in a lot of situations, but it may be tiring to be up against big institutions all the time. How do you stick with it?
MT: Well, I kind of think it goes back to a very boring story. When I was a kid I wanted to be in the media, and make the film that would change the world. The way things were upset me so I wanted to change things because it just didn't seem right. So, I thought I wanted to make a film. I had made a resume that looked very good, and I thought, before I go to university, I don't want to be one of these filmmakers that have never worked in the business. So I thought, okay, I'm going to work in a theater. I picked a prestigious theater, and then I got a job instantly. Not because I'm smart, just because they were stupid. I walk by the theatre, and I think, that's the backstage, anyone that comes out of there I'm going to speak to them. This guy came out and I said, "Do you work here?" He said, "Yeah, I'm Tim," and I said, "Do you have any work? I've got a resume." And he looked at it and he said, "You're hired." So, don't be thinking I'm some great genius, I wasn't.
So then I literally get hired and I'm sitting in a George Bernard Shaw play, a tech rehearsal, for Widowers' Houses with Judi Dench, a famous British actress from Bond. And there's seven people in there, and I'm thinking, bloody hell, is this really going to change the world? I thought, I don't want to do this, what will I do? So then I thought, well, I don't really like systems, so maybe I'll just build my own little system. In a way, that's doing the best you can do, because you can't really do much as a single person. So, that's what we did, that's what I focused on. I remember Russell Brand, that British guy, came to see us at the PHS once, and he said, "You've built a mini socialist state within the state, fuck, how are you getting away with that, yeah?" And I thought, he's a smart person, because no one had ever really understood that we were just building a community really.
SA: Yeah, you're putting all these things on top of each other.
MT: Yeah, people need work, we'll have some work for them.
SA: They need a bank.
MT: They need a bank, we'll get a bank. But in terms of the story about the theatre, I think people in theatre have this propensity to handle the highs and lows of working together to get a thing done. I just know from being a kid, like when it's 3:00 o'clock on Friday, you have to have it ready for Monday, you work all night, all day. And then the play goes on for a month and then it's all gone. I used to stand on the empty stage and all that effort has evaporated into just nothing, there's an empty stage. So there's something in that feeling that I like, but maybe that will be a question for my own therapy [laughs]. But I think that part maybe makes me be okay at doing this work, whereas other people feel battered down, I've always got battered down, I've spent a life being battered down. So, maybe it's something to do with that.
And also when I was a kid–I always bore people with this story, people say, "Did Mark mention his nan at a presentation?" And I might, it's possible. But when I was a kid my nan lived in a house that was declared by the government as unfit for human habitation. But this is an old British rental system, where you have this right, it's called a sitting tenancy, so they couldn’t kick her out.
My mum was born in that flat, and in the apartment, there were three levels. One floor with a fur-coated criminal, and then an old lady that had long blonde hair who was schizophrenic, and then my nan, who you wouldn't really want to mess with, to be honest. So in a way, I had a mini version of the Portland when I was young. Then there was a massive effort of slum clearance in that area, a bit like New York in the Bronx—they called it “revitalization”—they pulled down all these little terrible slums and they built a motorway and then they put in these towers, but they couldn't move my nan. But at that moment, my nan lost all her friends, she lost her job because she worked at a bakery called Keen's that was just around the corner. And also, her mother, who she had seen every day of her life, was moved to these big tower blocks in the green zone, the outer edge of the city, which was two bus rides away, took 45 minutes to get there, Lawrence Weston.
So, I saw all these things and they had some effect on me, like why do people do these things to people? I know they mean well, but why did they destroy that community? Why did that happen? And then in other countries, I saw even more horrible things, so I think that all had an effect on me. But I also enjoy this kind of work, and I always see it as a privilege. But I'm not a snob, if I have to, I'm going to work in McDonald's and scrub the fat out of the vat, I don't mind, I can do that and I've got no problems. In fact, in New York, when I first worked at this agency here—they had financial troubles I had to fix—and they didn't have a cleaner, so I cleaned the office and vacuumed it before they came in. But they thought it was an outrageous thing that someone like me was doing that. They didn't like it, it caused them cognitive dissonance, but I wanted it to be nice when they came in so I'd vacuum, empty their garbage, tidy their desk. They thought I had some cleaning fetish, which I didn't. They were busy in their jobs and I wanted them to come in and have it be clean and tidy and organized. I mean, it's pathetic, but it's the best we could do, the coffee was made and they could have their coffee. They could feel relaxed and taken care of in some way.
"It is just simple. Accept there are people who use drugs, give them housing, and treat them like a normal human being."
SA: Yeah, well, if you're doing really difficult work then all of those little things, they're not pathetic, they're super important. Do you believe in the idea of having a calling? Do you think that this is your calling?
MT: Well, I'll tell you a terrible story that is kind of upsetting, I don't know if I really should tell it to you, but I will. It’s about my mum, who is very religious, though she just died recently.
SA: I’m sorry to hear that.
MT: I feel in the past she would've been burned as a witch, she's odd and empathic. When I was born, she lost a lot of blood and thought she was going to die so she said to God, "Okay, well, you can use him, I'll let him go." She made that commitment to God, so that bit is weird. And also before the Portland takedown, my mum said, "Well, the devil is going to come after you, I think that's what's going to happen." The devil? I don't like the idea of the devil coming after me, I thought it was a very worrisome comment. Those are the only two comments like that my mum has ever made.
SA: They sound pretty accurate.
MT: They do, yeah. And the therapist that I used to go to is a really lovely lady called Leslie Ross, and she's in Van, if ever you need a therapist, they're very hard to find, good therapists.
SA: I have a therapist in New York that I'm just holding onto and we do Zoom meetings.
MT: Okay, good. Actually, I could maybe get her name or his name. But anyway, Leslie was good and she does horse therapy with people as well, but I always poke fun at all her shamanistic stuff and I tell her, look, fuck, Leslie, I don't want to hear any of that rubbish, yeah? But Leslie always had this thing with me that I really was like that, and that's why I was very anti.
SA: So, she was saying that she thinks you're so against it because you are actually deeply spiritual, deeply connected to something in that wavelength?
MT: Yes, as a writer, you've described it much more articulately, yes. She always thought I had this thing.
SA: Do you ever see yourself doing work that isn't in this area?
MT: I could, because I can enjoy anything, truth be told. So I could.
SA: That's so nice. Have you thought about other jobs that you would want to do?
MT: Well, I may have to. I've always wanted, since I was a kid, go after the media, sorry to tell you.
SA: Yeah, you should.
MT: Because media critique, it drives me crazy. When I was a kid, there was a fantastic show that got taken off air, it was called The Friday News Alternative. They only did it once a week, because they were actually funded by the mainstream station which soon took them off for their “biased coverage”. What’d they do is, if you did an interview with me, they'd show the edited interview, and then they'd show what you said before and what you said after the edited takes, and often that was pretty shocking just to do that. So I’ve always fancied that, but I think you need a lot of money to be in media.
SA: Hmm, yeah you’re probably right. Okay, let me look and see, it's 10:57 so I want to respect your time, let me see if there's anything that I haven't covered. Is there anything else you want to share?
MT: Well, in terms of drug use within harm reduction places, I do find that to be very, very hypocritical, and especially in the United States. Like for instance at the place I was at, it was okay to be smoking marijuana but if you went up to the roof and shot up drugs, that was bad. I don't really understand the difference. If people are performing their job and they're okay, that's great, and if they're not, then we deal with that. But I could not perform my job for mental health reasons, or when my mum died I wasn't doing so well, there's many reasons, it's not just people that use drugs that perform badly at work. When people have rough times why don't we just be with them in those rough times and invest in that person. I look at it like I'm accepting you because I'm as fucked up, who am I to be making this judgment about how someone functions or, like, who's a good parent?
Like when Liz is feeling, as everyone does, that she’s a terrible parent. I often say to her, "Well, tell me, of all the people we know, who is a better parent than you? Who is it that you're thinking of? Name that person.” Because the kids will come to her and they're honest, they talk to her, they'll say, "I want to use some acid for the first time," and they feel comfortable telling her that. So, that to me is a beautiful thing, she should be proud of herself, not think, "I'm a terrible parent." So, with the work thing, it’s similar, who is it that we're modeling ourselves on? Even when we were at the PHS it was very difficult to accommodate that, because when someone was doing badly it could be seen that we were indulging them by not firing them. Basically, the belief is that you have to fire them. Just like with the residents of the PHS, if they're fucking up, you evict them, yeah? And we wouldn't evict people. Obviously, if someone stabbed me 20 times with a knife, we're going to evict them, but it didn't really happen.
SA: Yeah, I feel like a lot of the examples you're giving are connected to this idea of carceral logic, we're just going to kick people out of society, and then there you go, problem solved. But, in reality, you can't really kick someone out of society.
MT: You can't.
SA: It's not really possible. Even with all this cultural anguish over being canceled, canceling is not really real. Being kicked out of society is not really real, being severely ignored and stigmatized is real. But on a macro level, I don’t really agree with the idea that you can just fire someone from a job and, there you go, it's not your responsibility anymore. Or you can kick them out of the building that you own and, there you go, it's not your responsibility anymore. We have a collective responsibility to each other, right?
MT: Yeah. Like there was a woman at PHS who pushed me down the stairs and had 27 pending charges. But she wasn't going to be going to jail for any of that because the jail isn't going to take her. So we’d tell the police like, what do you want us to do? Don’t you want us to accommodate her? And she only died recently, she lived there, she became a tame person because she just had a space for herself.
SA: Yeah, and was made to feel like a human, was treated like a human.
MT: Yeah, it's pretty simple shit, really, yeah. The human thing is the big thing.
MT: I've sat in the workplace in New York where people have come in to complain about drug users that are at a condo next door, and there's the building superintendent and he uses drugs. So it's like, there is a very double standard, and we all use some kind of drugs, yeah? It's just some people are just very lucky...
SA: That they use the socially acceptable ones.
This interview has been edited for clarity.