What We Can All Learn from Danish Street Lawyers

One of our primary objectives at the Open Society Public Health Program is to support initiatives that integrate legal services with health care. We frequently support education workshops and university courses, but nothing beats a hands-on learning experience. To that end, I recently traveled to Denmark with five lawyers from Russia and Ukraine who work in the field of harm reduction. The mission: to shadow the Copenhagen-based Street Lawyers (Gadejuristen).

The Street Lawyers, founded in 1998 by Nanna Gotfredsen, provide legal services for people who use drugs, especially those who are homeless. The organization that started in Gotfredsen’s living room is today recognized worldwide for making a tremendous impact in improving the health and rights of some of the most marginalized members of society. The Street Lawyers are easily recognized on the streets of Copenhagen by their ubiquitous coffee cart, through which they dispense coffee and snacks along with legal advice.

The five lawyers in my study group shared their work challenges and experiences with their Danish counterparts, engaging in dialogue about the most effective methods of legal aid provision to drug users. The group also visited the offices of the Danish Drug Users’ Union, a medical office that delivers heroin maintenance therapy, and a free clinic that reaches out to neglected populations in Copenhagen.

Surprisingly, the highlight for my Russian and Ukrainian colleagues was a trip to a maximum-security prison. We were all impressed by the humane approach of the Danish corrections system towards its inmates, particularly in light of atrocities that the lawyers in the group have seen in their countries’ prisons. One of the few “closed” prisons in Denmark, this institution constantly tries to come up with more innovative and useful services for its detainees. Methadone is freely available to detainees upon request, but nobody at this institution is serving a sentence for a drug-related crime.

While the attorneys in my group encounter tremendous challenges in their everyday work—from a government ban on opioid substitution therapy in Russia to police violence at methadone-dispensing sites in Ukraine—they were inspired and motivated by what they saw.

“It may appear impossible,” said Maria Kaminska, director of the Lviv-based legal aid project All Together, referring to the social and legal protections that now exist for Danish drug users, “but not so long ago we thought that methadone in Ukraine was an impossibility. We just need to continue working hard. Someday we’ll have the Street Lawyers in Lviv.”

9 Comments

Hide

It is very easy to criminalize but needs lot of love and care to bring the addict to healthy habit. If anybody should be in jail then they should be the greedy business people who sell that stuff.Blind enforcement is only hurting our brothers and sisters the addict.Politicians want to be politically correct but give a damn about the sick people ,the addict.Your organisation is doing the right thing.God Bless.

Señores Buenas Noches:

He leido y visto el video y me parece muy interesante el tema de los abogados en la calle para atencion de los usuarios de consumo de drogas.
Al respecto debo manifestar que en mi condicion de abogado con 19 años de experiencia, he constatado que existe mucha normativa sobre las modalidades de trafico ilicito de drogas, sin embargo para el consumo, solo un articulado ya que el legislador ha considerado que por la minima cantidad y siempre y cuando justifique su consumo, no sera condiderado delito.
Sin embargo, el tema apunta para quienes velan por la salud de los consumidores y por la asistencia legal que requieren. creo que en mi modesta opinion en mi pais Peru, no se le da aun la debida importancia al tema (tratamiento al consumidor). por otro lado, las terapias que se brindan en casas o centros de prevencion y tratamiento del consumidor,pocas estan ligadas a la fe espiritual,ya que resulta necesario resaltar que brindar amor para esas personas que requieren de la asistencia legal y de salud, es primordial para luego pasar a la otra etapa que es el tratamiento en si.
Puedo testimoniar que durante los 19 años de ejercicio profesional en mi estudio de abogados, he dedicado en muchos de los casos, temas relacionados a la defensa de personas vinculadas a la presuncion de algun ilicito penal y por otro lado,cuando me toco la oportunidad de ejercer el cargo de Fiscal Penal del Ministerio Publico,desde otro frente combati esta lacra social del trafico de estupefacientes. finalmente creo que es necesario enfocar este tema y darle la viavilidad a traves de instituciones no gubernamentales que concilien la necesidad de ayudar medica y legalmente a los usuarios cosumidores de drogas, que requieren la proteccion de toda persona humana.

felicitando por esta noble y titanica labor, me encuentro a vuestra disposicion para cualquier apoyo que requieran, lamentablemente no hablo ingles, pero creo que la voluntad no tiene impedimentos.
saludos especiales,
Atentamente

Dr. Leonardo PACORA YMAN

Dear Dr. Leonardo Pacora Yman, thank you very much for your extremely kind and encouraging words! Best wishes, Nanna, street lawyer, Copenhagen, Denmark

I first became acquainted with the Danish Street Lawyers, when the founder, Nanna W. Gotfredsen, called me and said, "We're invited to this annual collaborative meeting arranged by the Ministry of Social Affairs, where the topic is sex work. We have so far rejected the invitations to these annual meetings, because sex workers themselves have not been invited. But I think it is important to the organizers to have the street lawyers participating this year. Nevertheless they have agreed to invite a sex worker too. Can you come? And will you do a presentation at this meeting?".

To me it was strange that a recognized organization of lawyers would use their authority and put their ability to influence the game at risk - just to ensure that we, the sex workers, would also be consulted and listened to. Such had not ever happened before. When sex workers previously had been “on the pitch”, it was always just as selected examples of the problems that others had defined as ours. What was put forward, and the angle, was never free and our announcements were virtually consequently first interpreted and then put forward by others than ourselves. Very often it was then not possible for us to recognize “our problems” as they were put ...

I agreed to do the presentation at the meeting, kept myself close to the paper it was written on, and afterwards and in the subsequent discussion it was characteristic that all questions and comments were addressed to the street lawyers sitting in the audience. I was now obviously perceived as “the example of the Street Lawyers”. But Nanna just replied: "Why ask me about how sex workers perceive their own situation - why not ask the sex worker herself, she is available here and right now to probably answer all the questions you might have ... !?".

At this first occasion nobody asked me anything, and I must admit that I myself was so unfamiliar with someone counting sex workers as an equal player in the debate about sex work, that I would probably have found it difficult to answer any questions.

Since then, the Street Lawyers have backed us practically, legally and morally with both practical and legal assistance regarding the establishment of SIO – The Danish Sex Worker Organization back in March 2008. This assistance has been invaluable. We still haven’t succeeded to obtain any funding to finance our work (but on the other hand we then have a much appreciated total independence, which is needed at this very moment, where we are in line for the implementation of the Swedish model criminalizing our clients), so the fact that The Street Lawyers are hosting our board meetings and member meetings in their office is quite a nice help too. They have advised us regarding getting media attention and – not least – they have assisted us in getting the sex workers' awareness on the important issue that the law should be equal to all - including sex workers.

But the most important contribution from the Danish Street Lawyers, which has been crucial for us regarding succeeding to organize and succeeding to become an important voice in the debate about ourselves, is the Street Lawyers faith in us. Their faith in that it actually does matter, and that it is even really important, how we perceive our situation, their insisting that we have important things to contribute with - that sex workers themselves are essential and necessary voices in the debate. If someone really wants to “help us”, they must first put themselves at eye level with us, pay us some respect and listen to us and involve us. This is what the Street Lawyers did and this has been vital to the establishing of and continued work by our very own organization, SIO, and that sex workers in Denmark are now well on track to become an important voice in the public and political debate about sex work. Nothing About Us Without Us!

My hope and wish would be, that all vulnerable groups all over the world, not least in areas where vulnerable people are put even much more at risk, than we are here in Denmark, could have their very own street lawyers to serve and protect them and their legal rights.

Sus Møller, spokeswoman, SIO,

Dear Sus, your powerful words challenge all of us in the legal profession to let clients speak for themselves, and to ensure that legal services do not compound the oppression inflicted by the law enforcement system. We can only hope that the Street Lawyers' model of lawyering will take hold wherever sex workers and people who use drugs are denied their fundamental human rights.

Jeg undrer mig over hvad der egentlig står i vejen, inde i de mennesker (politikere) som hindrer dem i en udvikling på det her område. Jeg ville ønske at dette emne kunne få ligeså mange folk op af stolen, som reklamerne for WSPA ,der omhandler dyr der ikke blir' behandlet ordenligt. Hvad gir os mennesker ret til at dømme en gruppe mennesker (der i forevejen kæmper for overlevelse) -at dømme dem til at være offentlige byttedyr? De dele af vores by, hvor de er tvungne til at færdes, for at knokle sig til de stoffer de er afhængige af, blir der nedlagt forbud for dem, om at færdes! Politiet må jagte dem frit, og straffer dem i et væk, fordi de har brudt et forbud! På trods af at alle ved, at havde forbud over hovedet haft en effekt på mennesker, så havde de sgu nok slet ikke stået der'. Stoffer er jo ulovlige!!!!! Vågn op!!

Sometimes as drugusers we live so isolated in our society, that we know very little about our human-rights ,and many times we take a lot crap and injustice towards us because we know ,that no one will listen. We dont speak up, if we are violated, in fear of making our daily struggle worse, by harassement. Thats why its so importent to have street lawyers like ours. I wish all drugusers all over the world had street lawyers like ours.

The thing that makes Nana and the other lawyers most inspiring to me, even after seeing many legal aid programs for drug users, is that they start with the client's needs first. This is a part of harm reduction that easily gets lost when it is, as it is often, reduced to a set of inteventions rather than a criterion for making choices. Where do I need to be to help the drug users connect? That is the question that the Danish street lawyers haven't forgotten, and one that should be revisited, regularly, by programs seeking to serve injecting drug users elsewhere in the world.

Gadejuristen Nanna Gotfredsen - Street Lawyer of Copenhagen is an angel and for more than a decade she's been an indignant protector of our rights. Therefore Nanna also received our 2008 honour – the “User Friend of the Year” award.

Nanna and her team of dedicated lawyers advice and help us to encounter the many severe difficulties drug users, street working prostitutes, homeless and other vulnerable people, have while they live, work and/or just try to survive on the streets and at the relatively open drug scene of Copenhagen. They also offer users who receive drug treatment or other public services all over Denmark, their appropriate assistance – they help manage and fight our personal cases and just as well meet up as supportive bystanders, at meetings we might have with the authorities.

The Street Lawyers respects and protect all marginalized peoples right and provide concrete and holistic help and personal and individual support for all vulnerable people. Their free services and wider offers of high quality information and support, means we feel we have security and they also teach us that we have a choice and a right to self-determination, which means everything for us.

The Street Lawyers supports evidence-based development efforts and provide counselling, education and presentations to organizations as well as to staff from diverse authorities etc. Street Lawyers also informs and educates politicians, police force and other authority or public service personnel, about ongoing law malpractices and discrepancies of public service, and on the principles of harm reduction practice – as well as scientific evaluations and reports, and other relevant fact information.

What characterizes Gadejuristen/the Street Lawyers and it’s devoted people more precise, is the fact that they never resign to a difficult situation or accept that there could not be found a solution to a given serious problem. Generally, they just keep on and on until things resolve almost as by themselves. There are obviously areas where it is extremely difficult – now, we have such an "Arbeit macht frei" principle that’s taken over, where everyone jolly well must work, even has strengthened the legal criteria to get a disability pension, and therefore close to impossible to get nowadays.

I met Nanna first time back in the 90’ies when she came to BrugerForeningen as a law student, working on her final master exam with the title Heroin. She interviewed many of us and we instantly felt that she had no prejudice what so ever, and she was always really interested in learning all about us and all about our use of heroin and all other drugs. Nanna have a great memory (I use to say as an elephant, but wont say that here) and soon she became a true expert in every angle of using – and many or most other things about active users. Soon she learned that many were mistreated – and many didn’t even know anything at all about their personal rights.
Very soon Nanna started to work or rather fight hard voluntarily for our rights in her own limited spare time. We all soon realized that destiny really had sent us a rarity (a saint) – someone without prejudice, who just not saw us as outcasts, misusers, addicts, criminals or worse. Nanna truthfully saw and respected us as equal humans – and she was deeply interested in helping us all get a better life, and to help us develop a safer lifestyle as a drug using community. Since then we all love Nanna and we know Nanna love us – a pure love story. It is also a fact that no one has worked as hard and as many hours as Nanna – she still works both days and nights - to fight our cause and we know that we owe her much of our successes individually and as a union of active heroin users.

Nanna knew from her wider acquaintance with many users that some just prefer heroin, so in her understanding (and as a matter of fact) a larger number of drug users actually hadn’t access to sufficient care, as long as there wasn’t heroin treatment on the shelves, and our treatment system therefore was inadequate to cover and meet treatment requirements, so it just needed to be changed soon as possible. Nanna promised with certainty that these things could be different and changed in this respect, and eventually (after more than a decades fight)we succeeded to get the heroin on prescription treatment to Denmark, due to a very high degree of Nanna's "street legal approach " that insists on objectivity, goes on and on and on casting bullets, and when this couldn’t achieve more, others was mobilized to reach further and in the end we successfully achieved our common goal - but there is still potentials of improvements, but that's another story and certainly not Nanna's fault.

Many years ago the staff of the treatment system here at Copenhagen started to pour fruit syrup juice into our liquid methadone at the local clinics, to make it they thought impossible to inject. Though, even ordinary liquid methadone wasn’t meant to inject, some users who prefer to inject injected it anyhow, but this extra fruit syrup addition procedure made it even more dangerous - and actually "harm production". Clever as always Nanna soon discovered that according to several Danish laws the fruit syrup procedure was even double prohibited. To mix a food product into a pharmaceutical product is not legal - one must both be a pharmacist and a food technologist. And before mixing such things legally it must happen in an approved sterile environment and require a legally approved recipe. When Nanna asked about their permit, they had to drop the whole stupid idea, but the treatment system was not amused. However, this little legal battle pointed out the needs of, and eventually lead us to get legally inject able methadone available, and it still is at certain clinics in Copenhagen.

There have been so many smaller and larger wins over the many years, we've been protected by Nanna and her team of hard working lawyers and from the Danish Drug Users Union/BrugerForeningen we are extremely proud and thankful to have Nanna - Gadejuristen/ and all her committed team of Street Lawyers to protect our rights and help us individually, and just as well to assist us and fight for our common interests. The work they have done and still do every day is really important. Even despite we know that there’s only one of Nanna, it is our heartfelt desire that all vulnerable people in every major city worldwide, would have the same feeling of protection, security and feeling of right to self-determination from a local clone of Nanna - Gadejuristen / and a team of hard working Street Lawyers. That would secure that we all had a much better world to live in.

Joergen Kjaer/president
BrugerForeningen – Danish Drug Users Union
Copenhagen – Denmark

Add your voice