An organisation of progressive young people, The Dignity Movement, is fighting for a more inclusive and supportive drug policy in Armenia. We interviewed the president of the organisation, Ashot Gevorgyan.
Drugreporter: The Dignity Movement defines itself as a “young liberal movement” that fights for human rights in Armenia. Why have you chosen to work on the issue of harm reduction as one of your key topics?
Ashot Gevorgyan: Yes, we define ourselves as a liberal youth movement, which speaks for those young people who do not have the capacity to speak, are forced to be silent, or are unheard. We are run for and by youth, and were established to reform the social, cultural, and political system in order to improve the protection of the dignity, rights, and freedoms of young people. Drug misuse is common in Armenia, especially in the nightlife scene. Young people do not have any information about drugs; harm reduction or awareness-raising campaigns or programs are noticeable only by their total absence. HIV or harm reduction programs do not target youth and adolescents, thus increasing vulnerability to HIV and drug-related harms for young people. We aim to develop and implement harm reduction and sexual health programs tailored to the needs and rights of young people in Armenia.
What is the state of harm reduction in Armenia, what programs and services are available?
Harm reduction as a methodology for HIV prevention is not mentioned in national policies and legislation. Despite the long period of implementation of prevention programs, coverage, in terms of the number of syringes dispensed per year per person who injects drugs (PWID), and the quality of existing services in the country, remain low. Programs are focused exclusively on outreach work among PWID. Based on my almost 15 years of HIV activism and experience, the Armenian approach to HIV prevention needs to be updated, it is outdated and does not address the current tendencies and needs. There are no programs specifically for youth or about Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Behavioural and biological data about youth is non-existent. Discussions about young people’s health and drugs are not being held by CSOs or by the state bodies.
Are there any important changes in the trends of drug use in your country in recent years?
There is a lack of data on non-injection drug use in the country. Novel Psychoactive Substance (NPS) use has increased recently but the prevalence is unknown and virtually impossible to determine. The main reasons for choosing NPS are: cheapness, availability, and potency. Educational and informational campaigns for the youth, particularly for those active in the nightlife scene, are absent.
This year Armenia held numerous festivals and musical events, where use of legal and illegal drugs are common, especially among young people. This year we have registered 88 cases of unresponded overdose among the youth, with a sharp increase during the summer. One young person died from an unresponded overdose. The cases are registered based solely on our knowledge to have just any kind of data about drugs and young people.
According to the Ministry of Health of Armenia, as of 2019, the number of people who use drugs (PWUD) has increased by 6% – 6,951 people were registered. Of these, 63% are cannabinoid users, 36% are opiate users, and 1% use cocaine. This data is far from the reality. I know only one young person receiving services, which were not helpful. People are afraid of visiting doctors or receiving services, because of the legal barriers, oppressive policies, police approach, and the lack of needs and rights-based services.
What is the status of naloxone in Armenia, is it available for people who use drugs? Are there training courses to educate people about overdoses?
A comprehensive behavioral study among people who use drugs, conducted in 2018 in Armenia, showed that a significant number of the PWID surveyed reported experience of drug overdose and severe cases accompanied by loss of consciousness. The study results highlight the need for naloxone provision in harm reduction projects to prevent fatal opioid overdose. However, there is no information about such projects. Naloxone and STI/HIV rapid tests are not available for the public in Armenia.
Have you made any advocacy efforts to change drug laws and/or scale up harm reduction? What successes have you had with that?
The Government of the Republic of Armenia has to follow the recommendations of the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization. Harm reduction is the foundation of a rights-based public health approach to drug use. It is a set of principles and an evidence-informed package of services and policies that seeks to reduce the health, social and economic harms of drug use. The principles of harm reduction programs in Armenia must include trust, inclusivity, non-judgmental attitudes, flexibility to adapt to the needs of clients, and the active participation of the community of people who use drugs in planning, implementation, and evaluation. We advocate for harm reduction services, which also respect such fundamental rights as privacy, bodily, and mental integrity, dignity, and freedom from arbitrary detention.
Our efforts and struggles of the past two years, for the youth health protection, education, and harm reduction programs, continue to be ineffective. The government and local and international stakeholder organisations are completely ignoring the needs of the youth in Armenia. The Dignity Movement marks its second year of existence in September, but in the beginning it was disrupted by COVID, then by war. We are not able to be a self-sustainable organisation, but all our funding applications were rejected by donor organisations. It seems that Armenia and/or young people are not a priority for them. As the only organisation working on this issue, we do not have enough financial, human, or any other type of resource to strengthen the movement.
Many people complain about the phenomenon of shrinking space for civil society in Europe and Central Asia – that is, the crackdown on independent NGOs by governments in many countries. Do you experience this in your country?
True. The case of the young Yezidi activist who spoke up about the discrimination of Yezidis in Armenia forced us to think more about the safety of our activism. If the National Security Service initiated a criminal case for inciting national, racial, or religious enmity between the Armenian and Yezidi peoples, I do not want to imagine what kind of security issues our organisation can be accused of or subjected to. There is not a single lawyer interested or expert in our topics, no funds for lawyers, a lack of understanding of physical and cyber security among the only few activists, and no permanent safe space for meetings and discussions. We are members of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Association (EHRA), trying to learn from their resources, but it is not enough. The financial, legal, physical, and cyber safety of the movement must be ensured above all things. The health of young people is critical. I am afraid soon we might face a situation that is impossible to manage.
Interview by Peter Sarosi