Why you should care
Because he wants to help, not vilify, people who enjoy drugs.
A rainbow-colored banner on the wall of Shilo Jama’s cramped Seattle office declares “You Are Magical.” His desk overflows with paperwork, pamphlets and snacks, and while there’s room enough to move about, it’s clear the space sees little downtime. Jama, wearing his signature black cap and smiling beneath bushy eyebrows, says 30-hour days are not uncommon.
Located in the basement of a Methodist church across from the University of Washington main campus, this is the headquarters of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, a 10-year-old nonprofit dedicated to lowering the risks of drug addiction. PHRA, the largest needle-exchange program in the United States, is funded by grants, donations and “hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours,” according to Jama, 42, one of two staff members overseeing approximately 250 volunteers. He notes that the organization requires a majority of its staff, volunteers and board members to be active drug users, a group that includes Jama, who has stirred controversy with statements like “Heroin saved my life” and “I have always enjoyed drugs and they’ve always made my life better.” It is this drug-using community he credits with some of PHRA’s most innovative approaches.
I wanted to fight for homeless rights and drug users’ rights, but all the nonprofits told me I was a homeless junkie and all I was going to do is die.
“They really lead what we do here,” Jama tells OZY. “It was drug users’ ideas to start the crack and meth pipe [distribution] program.” The program, launched in 2015, received immediate pushback because it’s technically illegal — smoking paraphernalia does not enjoy the same legal protections as injection equipment — and there were some, like former King County HIV/AIDS prevention employee Susan Kingston, who worried it could divert resources from more essential programs, such as naloxone distribution (the drug capable of reversing an opioid overdose).
Despite those worries, naloxone distribution was not negatively affected. When overdose deaths spiked nationwide in 2015 to 33,000, PHRA kicked into high gear: The drug use trends report on King County showed that PHRA dispensed 3,023 naloxone kits, resulting in 1,981 self-reported overdose reversals. By contrast, King County Public Health, which operates the government-funded needle exchanges, distributed just 346 kits, with only 73 self-reported reversals.
The figures speak for themselves, but beneath the data — and what distinguishes Jama’s approach to harm reduction — is empathy for users and lack of judgment. Rachel Rourke, a teacher who has known Jama since high school, says, “He’s always been really passionate about giving drug users and homeless people love and compassion.”
It’s a passion rooted in Jama’s own experience with drugs, starting when he was 13. His penchant for personal disclosure has been tempered since he married a social worker in 2014, but he has spoken openly about being an active heroin and cocaine user with no intention of stopping. “I love living in fairyland,” he tells OZY. Heroin also led to his turnaround moment in 1996, when he woke up one morning to find a friend lying next to him dead from an overdose.
Jama reacted by visiting every related nonprofit he could find: “I wanted to fight for homeless rights and drug users’ rights,” he recalls, “but all the nonprofits told me I was a homeless junkie and all I was going to do is die.” Then he met Bob Quinn, who was running a grass-roots needle exchange off a card table on University Way. Jama says Quinn “basically adopted” him, offering love and accepting him as he was — an approach he has carried forward with PHRA.
“We gave all the power and all the authority to drug users and the participants,” he says about converting Quinn’s University District Needle Exchange to PHRA in 2007. “We said, ‘We’re going to follow you because you’re the best and brightest in your community; you’re the experts in the drug-using community.’”
For many, that reasoning might sound misguided — even dangerous. Aren’t heavy drug users supposed to care only about their next fix, laying waste to their health, jobs and relationships? True, addiction is defined by a user’s inability to stop despite the consequences (deteriorating health, criminal charges, loss of friends and family), but many of those consequences stem from social stigma and drug criminalization. When dealing with addiction, however, a growing body of evidence and expert opinion now suggest that shaming and other “tough love” approaches only exacerbate the problem.
In the decade since PHRA opened its doors, Jama’s model has proved effective. Today, the organization operates three locations across the Pacific Northwest and runs six bike, foot and car delivery programs in Oregon and Washington. Jama estimates that the total number of drugs users PHRA has helped is “in the tens of thousands”; its naloxone kits have resulted in 11,506 overdose reversals.
Not surprisingly, drug users praise PHRA, echoing statements like “I felt accepted there and was treated like a person,” but the group has many detractors. For example, Harley Lever, who ran for mayor of Seattle in 2017 on a harm reduction platform and now directs the advocacy group Safe Seattle, posts articles condemning Jama on Safe Seattle’s Facebook page. Lever claims Jama is “playing chicken” with King County by threatening to open unauthorized safe consumption sites if the county — which is evaluating the idea — doesn’t take action.
Although Lever and Jama appear to share common ground — Lever admits that Seattle should model its naloxone distribution program after PHRA’s — they are openly antagonistic. While talking with OZY, Jama refers to Safe Seattle as a “NIMBY [not in my backyard] group,” and Lever argues Jama “sends the wrong message” because he “looks at drug addiction as an alternative lifestyle.… He doesn’t necessarily want to get people off of heroin or meth.” Which, in fact, is true: Jama says that PHRA’s goal is to help users move from “chaotic use” to “stable use.”
Still, Jama is not ignorant of the dangers of drug use and concedes that some people, for reasons related to genetics and trauma history, should not use certain substances. And, for the first time this year, PHRA will partner with Community Psychiatric Clinic, a local outpatient program, to bring in a doctor specializing in buprenorphine (a treatment that helps people reduce their opiate use). “Seventy-five percent of users want treatment, so we’re bringing in treatment,” says Jama, explaining that the figure is his guesstimate after talking with PHRA participants.
But will he make good on his threat to open a safe consumption site? Jama declines to comment, and then: “No radical ever made change by asking for permission.”