Hundreds of people attended the Urban Drug Policies Conference in Warsaw on 17-19 February, supported by the Warsaw municipality and the Polish government agency on drugs. Most of the participants were Polish service providers and city officials. Researchers, policemen and NGOs from other European cities, including Barcelona, Zürich, Frankfurt, Coppenhagen and Lisbon, shared their experiences on best practice in urban drug policies. There were presentations about innovative ways to deal with drug problems, such as drug consumption rooms, cannabis social clubs and heroin maintenance programs, as well as examples of drug coordination mechanisms and the meaningful involvement of civil society. Barriers to access to harm reduction programs, especially opiate substitution treatment, and the challenges posed by new psychoactive substances, were central themes discussed in the sessions. Our Room for Change campaign was presented and two of the campaign movies - Where Do Poles Inject? and Life After the Closure of Needle Exchange in Budapest - were screened at the conference.
Presenting the Room for Change campaign in Warsaw
At the conference, a drafting committee was created, in which the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Rights Reporter Foundation, Krytyka Polityczna and the Polish Drug Policy Network played a major role in producing a set of recommendations on urban drug policies. The so-called Warsaw Declaration is based on the Prague Declaration (watch our movie about it!), an earlier document on urban drug policies, adopted in 2010. From the more general seven principles of the Prague Declaration, we developed ten concrete and more action-oriented recommendations. Here is a short summary of the ten recommendations (the full text is accessible here!):
1. Policy responses should be coordinated, and decisions should be based on evidence and consultation with civil society.
2. Cities should allow innovation in drug policy.
3. Police should not target drug users, and should cooperate with health and social services.
4. The human rights of drug users should be protected.
5. A comprehensive menu of health and social services should be provided, including harm reduction.
6. Cities should create regulations and guidelines on safe nightlife and partying.
7. Local governments should allocate adequate and sustainable funding for services.
8. Local communities should be educated, and forums for dialogue to resolve confilcts should be created.
9. Local policies should be monitored and evaluated.
Cities have always been the laboratories of innovative drug policies. Harm reduction itself, as a philosophy and practice, has evolved as a grassroots movement, nurtured by the most affected urban communities, rather than by national governments or academic institutions. In most cases, these communities had to learn (from the failure of traditional repressive ways of dealing with drugs) that a new approach was needed. National governments and international agencies were reluctant first to acknowledge the value of harm reduction programs operating on the ground.
Our movie on the harm reduction situation in Warsaw, Poland
When the leaders of the first cities, such as Frankfurt and Zürich, adopted their four-pillar (policing, prevention, treatment and harm reduction) drug strategies in the early 90s, they showed great political courage. At that time, approaches such as needle and syringe programs, not to mention drug consumption rooms, had not yet been proven to be effective in reducing death and disease. Fortunately, policy experimentation turned out to be worthwhile.
City officals today are in a much easier situation. Now we know what works and what does not work. We know that the best way to deal with urban drug problems is to provide access to a full spectrum of social and health services, rather than focusing on zero-tolerance. The Warsaw Declaration provides excellent guidance to municipalities which are aiming to develop urban drug strategies and policies. But adopting the declaration is only a first step. One weakness of the conference, was that only a few municipal authorities from outside Poland were represented. What is really needed now, is city-level advocacy from NGOs and professionals, in order to implement the recommendations of the declaration.
Photos: Tamás Kardos