By Jamie Grierson / The Guardian
George Charlton’s T-shirt is emblazoned with the words “nice people take drugs” in vibrant neon orange. George is sitting in the offices of Addaction, one of the UK’s leading drug and alcohol charities, in Redcar, in the north-east of England, looking out over the town’s esplanade and the North Sea beyond.
“I like these T-shirts,” he says. “I like to go into the Co-op on a Monday morning and have someone do a double take and say: ‘Really? Are you mad wearing that?’ It allows us to have a conversation. They’ll say: ‘You’re a decent lad,’ and I’ll say I was a problematic drug user for 15 years. Nice people do take drugs.”
George is a force of nature. He’s hard to contain. He speaks rapidly and enthusiastically about life, love and his work as a drug-user activist. He’s a qualified counsellor and offers mentoring and training to people affected by drugs.
What he defines as his life’s purpose emerged from 15 years of problematic drug use of his own. “My drug of choice was ‘more’,” he says. “It was more of anything I could get my hands on.”
He works tirelessly across the country on a range of projects but his focus at the moment is here in Redcar and Cleveland, where together with Addaction he is rolling out a pioneering project designed to save lives.
Under the project, a team of peers – people with lived experience of drug issues – take an intravenously administered medication called naloxone out on to the streets and train members of the community, including active drug users, in how to use it. The main life-threatening effect of an opioid overdose is to slow down or stop breathing. Naloxone blocks this effect and reverses breathing difficulties.
The majority of people who access naloxone do so through drug treatment or harm reduction services, but studies show people outside of structured drug treatment are most likely to die of a drug-related cause, so taking it out on to the streets is key.
George is joined in the Addaction offices by his team of four peers, or “naloxone champions”, dressed in matching azure hoodies. Jimmy, Chris, Andy and Nicky all pile in, laughing, talking over each other, excited about the day. Over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, they complete a hectic “check-in”, one by one sharing with the room how they are feeling. They are “buzzing”, “excited”, “nervous” and “ready to save lives”.