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Peter McDermott remembers friend and colleague, Alan Joyce

It is with great sorrow that I announce the death of Alan Joyce.

I first came across Alan when he started working as a volunteer for the Methadone Alliance. He popped up on some of the harm reduction mailing lists, full of passion for his new role, and with an interest in politics and post-structuralist philosophy.

An ex-art student, Alan had studied Fine Art at St Martin’s College and had had a career in the London theatre before his drug use eventually got the better of him. He’d been struggling with the implications of the policies of his local treatment provider when he learned about the Methadone Alliance, and had Bill Nelles, the Alliance’s founder and director, advocate on his behalf. It wasn’t long before Alan was volunteering for the Alliance himself, and then shortly after that he was appointed as senior advocate, handling the most complex advocacy cases across the UK. 

And so, while there’s a lot that I could say about Alan and his interests, his intelligence and his compassion, I’m going to limit myself to talking about his work for the Methadone Alliance, because I believe that that’s the area of his life where he had the biggest impact.

Today, people are used to having access to high quality methadone treatment, with adequate doses and without arbitrary time limits. Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s though, the picture was very different. In some areas, methadone treatment offered just a short break from the chaos before being reduced to such a level that you were inevitably thrust back into it.

The Methadone Alliance was established to advocate for people to have access to high quality, evidence-based opiate substitution therapy, and after Bill Nelles, Alan was probably the most significant figure in building the early organisation. Just last week, I was in Southport when I ran into a man that Alan had advocated for in the past. His clinic was threatening to stop prescribing for him, and Alan had come up to Sefton to advocate on the man’s behalf. Today, nearly ten years later, that guy was still grateful for the service that Alan provided:

‘My life was about to fall apart. If Alan hadn’t have come up and argued my case with the clinic, I’d have ended up back on the streets, my relationship would have split up, I’d have lost access to my kids – I can’t begin to conceive of what my life would have been like had Alan not intervened.’

His other great strength was finding and recruiting new activists to the drug users rights movement. After he retired from The Alliance due to ill health, Alan worked tirelessly for the National User Network, where he served until his sad demise. But wherever he operated, his passion and his compassion shone like a beacon – attracting others to the cause, and to his warm personality. His achievements and reputation in the movement for drug users’ rights is second to none.

Alan was 52 years old when he died, and leaves behind two children. 

Bill Nelles adds:

I will greatly miss my friend and colleague Alan Joyce. He was the Alliance’s first salaried drug treatment advocate. After two years he was given the title of senior advocate to reflect the success of his training efforts and his own study and personal development.

Alan was one of the first ‘patient’ advocates to be awarded the Royal College of General Practitioners’ Certificate of Drug Treatment in 2002. This was no easy course as it was the same year-long course that primary care doctors are expected to take to provide drug treatment services to their patients. 

In fact, Alan was one of the Alliance’s first ‘clients’ around 1999. He called our helpline at a time when we were still headquartered in our house in north London. His complaint was relatively straightforward – his clinic didn’t want increase his methadone dose above 60mgs a day and were, in fact, already slowly reducing his dose.

Alan’s own efforts to reach an effective methadone dose were to no avail. We met Alan at his local station and I negotiated with his Trust. A few days later, he called and was thrilled to tell me that he was getting a dose increase which would stay fixed. He attended our full training courses and became an acknowledged expert by experience. Sadly in around 2007 he became ill and retired from his Alliance work. He became involved with the NUN (National User Network) and was a tremendous help with their work.  

 He faced his end with characteristic bravery, after several weeks of high drama as doctors fought to try and save him. He passed away quietly with his family his at his side. And I lost a good friend and colleague whom I will never forget.

Alan Joyce

8 October 1959 – 4 June 2013