Interview with Morpheus Projects Lee Hertel (transcript) Part 1

Interview with Lee Hertel Director of Morpheus Project (pt 1)

(Freedom) Thanks for joining us today. I understand that you took over the position from Sue Purchase as The Director of Morpheus Project in Minneapolis earlier in the year.
Can I start by congratulating you on your promotion?

(Lee Hertel) Thank you, Freedom. I appreciate it. I was made Program Director of Morpheus Project this past winter. Sue remains the executive director.

Can you give me a ‘snapshot’ of The Morpheus Project, its history and it’s clientele?

Morpheus Project was started in 2010 and is a street-based syringe exchange/harm reduction/overdose prevention effort. We also provide limited advocacy and case management for a few of our participants.

Morpheus was born out of the closure of Minneapolis' first syringe exchange site, Access Works!, in 2009. Our clientele includes anyone who uses drugs but people who inject drugs are our core clientele. Along with that, let me say that we work with people who are homeless, those who do have housing, sex workers, gay men on the party scene – anyone who requests our services.

What is the political landscape like in the US at this point in time and what is the impact on people who use drugs, particularly those who inject?

Right now the political landscape is not favorable to people who use drugs, especially IDUs. As some of your readers may be aware, the U.S. had a policy of not allowing any federal dollars to be used for syringe exchange services. This had a crippling effect on programs that had to then rely on dollars st the state and municipal levels, as well as grants from private foundations and donations from individuals.

The syringe access ban is the main reason why the HIV infection rate among people who inject drugs was so high during the early years of the AIDS pandemic. Unlike the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The ban was instigated during the Clinton Administration in 1988 and remained in effect until 2009. That year, the Obama Administration was successful in pressing for the ban to be lifted. The feeling of hope and the joy that precipitated cannot be underestimated. Finally, the U.S. Congress was legislating according to science, not fear mongering and ignorance.

Unfortunately, the ban was reinstated in 2012. The movement to reinstate the ban was spearheaded by the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party and its representatives in the House of Representatives, chief among them was John Boehner (R – Ohio) and Hal Rogers (R – Kentucky). Needless to say, the returned ban has hurt every SEP in the country. Many have had to slash their payrolls and shed all but one or two paid positions and rely very heavily on volunteers to meet the demand for their services.

Thankfully, activists and policy makers are not giving up and have already begun writing legislation to life the ban once again.

At the ‘Summit of the Americas’, this year in the Colombian city of Cartagena, the Guatemalan President Otto Molina and the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos led the call from the Latin American heads of state for an end to the U.S lead prohibition or the ‘War on Drugs’. President Molina’s even went so far as to suggest North America reconsider its current position and engage in a rational and open debate about the merits of a legalized and regulated drug market.
As the program director of Morpheas you must witness on a daily basis the fall-out of Prohibition, the unintended consequences and sometimes-horrific personal stories of those who have to live through The War on Drugs.

You're correct. Every day I hear and see the unintended consequences of the War on Drugs. That's a non-sequitur if ever there was one.
War cannot be waged on inanimate objects. If it could be, then those fighting the battle would have emerged victorious decades ago. It is a war on drug users and their social networks, be it friends, families, dealers, customers, advocates and outreach workers.

I do a lot of outreach on the streets of Minneapolis and while at first glance it may seem that Minneapolis is but another idyllic Midwestern American city, there is a large and flourishing black market here that is only growing larger and more powerful. A lot of people have become homeless as a result of their drug use. Many of them are felons who were in precarious socioeconomic positions to begin with. Some of them were living in apartments that are subsidized by the government.

If convicted of a possession charge, that person is branded a felon and is then evicted from their housing. But it doesn't end there. When they apply for alternative housing in the private market, they are subject to background checks run by landlords and leasing companies. Anyone who is a felon is denied housing. The only choice is to live in poorly maintained housing owned by a landlord who doesn't conduct background checks.

If someone doesn't have an income (other than public welfare programs) that person often ends up living on the streets. Given the current global economic crisis, the number of homeless in Minneapolis has mushroomed. Many of them are young people in their early- to mid-20s. To give an example of what homeless people who use drugs face, I have been intensely working with a small group of men and women. They range in age from 23 – 34. One is a veteran of the U.S. Army who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a liaison between the Army and its subcontractors. He suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder and is a poly substance user (crystal meth mainly). Another is a very intelligent, college-educated young man who deals and uses crystal meth and heroin. Also in the group is a young woman who is currently homeless and using crystal meth. She is a sex worker working in an underground massage parlor (prostitution is illegal in Minnesota).

Before I continue, I'd like to say that I know what it is like to be addicted to crystal meth and be homeless in Minneapolis. I was homeless for approximately two years. During that time I traded sex for a place to stay and I also would hook up online with others into crystal meth. I learned that the most pedigreed calling card I could offer was at least 1g of meth. Doors opened and I was welcome. Once the multi-day run ended it was a different story.




  1. So happy that Lee is speaking up and sharing his unique brand of humor and style in this movement for positive change

    peace sue

    1. Thanks Sue. I agree that Lee is a one in a million. It's good to see Morpheus Project lives on for another day.
      Power to the people - right on

  2. It is great to see people keeping the nsep alive in America against the odds. My only issue with the article was with the fact that in 1988 Ronald Reagan handed over to George Bush (both Republicans). Clinton was not in the White House until 1993. This is where we see a pattern of Republicans or right wing governments around the world cutting funding to nseps. Both in 1988 and 2012 with the republican congress.