June 2022

Q&A Cheryl Delalande

A trailblazer from Australia’s first wave of NSP workers, Cheryl Delalande discusses her personal connection to the HIV pandemic and the professionalisation of harm reduction.

Can you explain what you did or how you were mixed up with needle exchanges and harm reduction? I think you started in HIV before you started in needle exchange, so can we just go back?

So it started in 1987 when I got a call from Ray [Petri] in England, the father of my first child and my best friend, to tell me that he had Kaposi sarcoma — prior to that we didn’t even know he had HIV. In those days, you got the bad stuff before you had a chance to know what was going on. And I had this vague sort of knowledge of HIV, or ‘AIDS’, as it was called then. I was actually doing an Associate Diploma of Welfare and I requested a placement to the Albion Street AIDS Clinic. They trained me to work on the AIDS Hotline, and they asked me to stay on as a part-time hotline counsellor.

Then we moved to the Central Coast from Sydney, and I was looking for a job, and I saw an ad in the Central Coast newspaper for a person with any experience or knowledge of AIDS [HIV-AIDS] to go and help set up a needle and syringe program at Hornsby Hospital. So I applied for the job and to my amazement I got it, and set up the first needle and syringe program on the Central Coast. We didn’t know what we were doing. The programs were brand new everywhere. We went and met with the new AIDS Coordinator of the Central Coast and he gave us a budget, we went and bought a van and had it all decked out inside so we could ask clients to come in and sit in the van while we did the exchanges on the street.

So we thought, ‘Where do we start?’ And we both thought, ‘Well let’s just head to the methadone clinic’. And we went off on a Saturday morning and we set ourselves near the clinic, and just started going up to people who were coming up and getting their methadone [chuckle], basically accosting people. And it worked like a treat. In our first month of operation we got out a thousand syringes.

I’m fascinated by what the people that were receiving needles thought of it, like what was their commentary to you?

Well you see one of the reasons they loved it was because we were both really friendly people, and we’d set the van up so that we could make tea and coffee for people. And we bought cupcakes and we acted like two mamas, really, and we just approached people and said ‘Oh hi, we’ve got a new program called a needle exchange and if you’re using needles apart from your methadone, we can give you clean needles, and first of all we can invite you into our van?’. And word just got around that there were two dudes turning up at the methadone clinic every Saturday morning who were giving free tea and coffee and cupcakes to people, everyone got to know that the white van with the two arrows was going to be bringing clean needles. And in those days you had to buy needles and they weren’t cheap, and word got around that you didn’t have to go to the chemist anymore and pay 4 bucks for a needle. 

So you and your old mate at Gosford both had nursing backgrounds – do you think the clients respected you?

I’d been a drug user as a young person so I just related to them like, I know what it’s like to be in the clubs and do all that shit, you know, I’d had a fairly interesting life.

And then you moved to Melbourne?

And then I moved to Melbourne. [After some initial steps in Melbourne’s NSP sector], I knew that there was a place on Smith Street, Collingwood that had recently changed its name to the Smith Street Needle Exchange, and I applied there and Craig [Mercer] employed me. And once a month these people would come through the door at 4 in the afternoon or something and they’d walk in like they owned the place and they’d all go upstairs. And I used to say, ‘What do NEWN do up there, what do they do?’

Yeah, so it was the Needle Exchange Workers’ Network (NEWN) – who was it, the managers of needle exchange programs?

All that little crowd, and it was like such an in-crowd, and I started questioning who these NEWN people were and what did they talk about, and it was all secret business, you know. So I put up with this for several months, and then one day I said to my manager, ‘If you don’t get minutes from their meetings and you don’t tell me what goes on in their meetings, I’m going to actually set up an alternative, my own association of workers in the sector, because I did that in New South Wales – you can’t have a sector where a group of people meet and it’s all secret like this’. He told me he wouldn’t allow that.

Really?

Yeah, yeah. And I said, ‘Well you can’t do that, I’ve got every right. We’ve got rights to set up our own association if we don’t think we’re being listened to’. And he said, ‘All right, you can; you can start it up’, and that’s how it all happened.

So go on – tell me about the beginning of ANEX [the Association of Needle Exchanges].

We started meeting at Smith Street and instead of it being NEWN it was ANEX – and that’s how it all started. And we used to meet upstairs in the same room as those people. And the real freaky characters that were with NEWN, like that used to go to sleep at meetings and all that, they all melted away and it started becoming more professional.

And the first committee of management, the thing that sort of struck me when I was thinking about it was – I mean it’s fair to say that at least half of the committee of management of ANEX had been in prison for drug-related crimes?

Yeah, because the thing was at the time, John, that a lot of the workers from those days were, you know, drug users and crooks.

Yeah. And we had a reunion around 2015, and there were a number of key people who had died as well, including from hepatitis-related illness or HIV/AIDS. The original committee of management were very much a combination of people with personal drug use histories, personal incarceration histories, histories of positive HIV, Hepatitis C and also professionals or whatever – an unusual cast of characters in retrospect.

Very – but you’ve got to remember, the cast of characters in the HIV f ield (forget the Needle and Syringe Program field) were an interesting cast of characters, because most of them were gay men or lesbian women or people who were on the fringes of society in lots of ways. So it was kind of a marriage of misfits, if you like.

And so let’s talk a little bit about Northeast AIDS Prevention Program.

I took the job at Northeast nighttime outreach program at Darebin Community Health and said to my boss, ‘I’m not going to work at night for the first month. I want to set up the program, I want to work with the community, local police, all of that stuff; get everybody used to the idea that they’re going to have an outreach programme in the Northeast (because they hadn’t had one)’.

Can you talk a little bit about that, and how the harm reduction services worked with police back in those days?

Because I had experience in Sydney, the first thing I did when I got the job in the Northeast was that I arranged to meet with a cop who was the head of the CIB [Criminal Investigation Branch] at Preston. And he wasn’t looking forward to the meeting because his secretary told him what I was, and I walked in, I dressed up, and he and I ended up talking for about an hour and a half, and he became my liaison officer for the Northeast.

And so, you know, some people [from the NSP sector] were appalled when they found out. But I thought; that’s the way to get everyone on side, you know, he’s not going to bust people for getting a hit of heroin on High Street, he’s not interested in them; but he can help me in getting everybody else on side. And it’s like, people forget that.

And so he came on board because he understood that it was important to prevent HIV amongst people who inject drugs even though they were criminals?

Absolutely, because it was also a sexually transmitted disease that was spreading amongst drug users that would go out to the wider community and, you know, everyone who had a brain was concerned about that.

So just fast forward – ANEX turned into your creation that you sat on the board for; the launch of Penington Institute was the reframing of ANEX after 15 years of ANEX having staff and running the conference and doing workforce development – so how did you feel about your name ANEX being changed into Penington Institute?

Oh I loved it.

Because?

Because, you know, all my years I’ve wanted that sector to have respectability in the community because it’s an important sector; it’s not just handing syringes to people, it’s not just helping with the HIV epidemic. It’s a whole raft of things that used to be described as kind of, you know, shitkickers doing a shit-kicker’s job. And the further that that respectability was progressed, the better it was going to be for everyone.

And what about this thing called harm reduction, I mean you were I guess, you were a ‘harm reductionist’ back in the day – what does harm reduction mean to you?

Well I don’t have a great deal of time for the term, to be honest, because I don’t think anyone knows what it means.

So you created an organisation that was dedicated to harm reduction but you think it sucks?

I’d prefer the word ‘harm prevention’. I think what we’ve been doing in this field forever is trying to prevent harm – we’re preventing people who choose to use drugs from fucking up and dying.

And do you reckon, do you think that’s a mistake – do you think the emphasis should be more on trying to stop people from using drugs? Like the allegation that war on drugs people would make is that harm reduction is sending the wrong message and corrupting our children – what do you say to that?

I say to them, ‘Wow, man, anyone that thinks that in 2022 is crazy.’ Every decade of peoples’ lives is now dominated by drug use. You know, I’m now in my 70s and almost everyone is on sleeping tablets, tranquilizers, opioids for pain, alcohol, you name it they are on something. I don’t even understand people who are anti-drug use.

And what’s the outcome that everyone should be working towards?

To an understanding that drugs are everywhere. I just think problematic drug use can’t be avoided; there’s always going to be people who overdo it, people who moderately do it, people who don’t do it – I don’t even understand what all the fuss is about.

And if you’ve thought about one thing that was a real highlight of your career, what do you reckon it would be?

Oh gosh. The highlight, or the big learning is probably everything I’ve talked to you about today. It’s been very interesting, you know. I don’t know what – well, [laugh] it’s funny. When Ray [Petri] was dying, I went over and looked after him for the last 6 weeks of his life, I nursed him. And he had Kaposi sarcoma, bleeding all over me, and I was laying on the bed with him a couple of days before I left – I had to leave about a week before he died. Anyway, this is making me cry – the highlight of my life was laying on the bed with him and he said to me, ‘you know what I’m going to miss…’ and I said ‘What?’ he said, ‘The sunshine, the sun shining’ [crying], and he said, ‘And I never thought you’d become Florence Nightingale’ [laugh] – we both pissed ourselves laughing.

That’s beautiful.