The Hazy Dawn of the Harm Reduction Decade

October 21, 2015

The Drugreporter video team attended and filmed the International Harm Reduction Conference to learn about the new trends in harm reduction. Please watch our short video and read our article highlighting these trends!

We hardly saw the sun for a week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the International Harm Reduction Conference took place in October 2015, attended by more than 800 professionals and activists from 17 countries. When it was visible, people could easily mistake it for the moon, because it was just a pale orange spot on the sky. The city was cloaked in a thick fog and smoke (coming from distant forest fires). We felt as if we were sitting in the middle of one of the steaming bowls of soup which are served up in the town's Chinese restaurants. The future of harm reduction is equally clouded. Even Master Yoda could not see it. 

Watch our conference video! 

A declaration has been adopted at this year's International Harm Reduction Conference, called the Kuala Lumpur Declaration (which I encourage you to sign here!) to shed light on the subject, and ensure that the next ten years will be the harm reduction decade. We have promising signs that this can become a reality. Canadian participants were delighted to learn that while they were attending the conference, their country went through a major change, with the opposition Liberals winning a landslide victory over the Conservatives who had ruled the country for the past decade. Since 2006, the Harper government has obstructed every effort to scale up harm reduction services and open new drug consumption rooms. Canadians now have a very good chance that they will  live in a harm reduction decade. 

Canadian harm reducers celebrate the end of the Harper-era

Other people have less chance of doing so. For many countries, including Thailand, Mexico and most Eastern-European and Central-Asian countries, the past decade was a decade of scaling up harm reduction services, thanks to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a development organisation chanelling funding from the wealthier to the poorer countries. Following the financial crisis, the Global Fund refocussed its funding policy, and is now moving out of so called higher-income countries, where, it says, governments can afford to fund harm reduction themselves. Fair enough. At least, it sounds fair enough. Governments may have the financial resources, but they lack the political will to support these life-saving services. The so-called sustainable transition to domestic funds exists only in rhetoric, and ignores the harsh legal environment  that operates in many countries and regions. 
The same governments who are reluctant to fund needle and syringe programs, spend huge amounts of money on ineffective law enforcement measures to punish and incarcerate millions of drug users and petty dealers every year. Harm Reduction International estimates that if seven cents from each dollar spent on drug-related law enforcement interventions was instead directed towards harm reduction, we would be in a position to end HIV among injecting drug users. They launched the 10by20 campaign to call on governments to spend at least 10 percent of their anti-drug law enforcement budget on harm reduction by 2020. Unless this principle is followed, the world will not be able to achieve the sustainable development goals - one of them being to end AIDS by 2030.

This year Drugreporter was part of the review group of the International Harm Reduction Conference - our movie on the Room in the 8th District
The only way how we can achieve the sustainable development goals, is to reform our criminal justice systems and decriminalise drug use. And it’s not only about HIV, but about the tremendous suffering caused by persecution, stigma and discrimination directed against people who use drugs. It's not just drug use that can cause harm to individuals and communities – bad drug policy also harms society. Realising this, the UNODC prepared a paper on the decriminalisation of drug use, which even went as far as to say that those who commit ‘small drug related offenses’ including dealing for personal use or to ‘survive’, should not be punished. However, after pressure from a member state (probably the US), they tried to suppress the document before publication. This is very unfortunate. If the international community shies away from addressing this issue, reforming drug laws, and embracing harm reduction, many countries will see a rapid increase of HIV and hepatitis C among drug users.  

UNODC said its paper was intended for "dissemination and discussion" - this is exactly what we did, what is more, we endorsed it! 
The international gathering of the harm reduction community confirmed my belief that there are thousands of committed and energetic people from all over the world who are ready to fight. We should not only preach to the converted – we need to go mainstream, and engage in a dialogue with policy makers, find allies among other segments of civil society, give a voice to drug-user communities and mobilise people to support our cause. UNGASS 2016 (read my article here!) will be an excellent advocacy opportunity to do so. Discussion, education and advocacy, at the local and national level, are key to achieving global goals.  
Article: Peter Sarosi
Film: Istvan Gabor Takacs and Peter Sarosi