Recently, peers from all over europe descended on the European Harm Reduction Conference in Bucharest and gave a fabulous, captivating and informed response to where we are today in Europe, what peers and peer groups are doing to bring about change to our inhumane system of prohibition. Many inspiring peers gave really terrific presentations, heading panels and discussions, educating and informing. It really was a great few days. Women who use drugs shone so brightly as they discussed their work and ideas, and a new term was coined by our amazing ENPUD colleague, Olga Belyaeva, ‘Narco Feminism’. What a great term to be used by women who wish to talk about the issues of women who use drugs, through a framework of prohibition and gender. Really good stuff! To keep things short, here is our welcome speech, spoken at the opening of the conference. Our Norwegian peer, Arild Knutson, gave a powerful and energized closing speech at the end of the event, which shone a big spotlight on just how far people who use drugs have come in the world of drug policy -how far they are bringing governments and policy makers, and how important their - our - contribution really is in today’s world of (slowly but surely) changing drug policies. And may it keep on changing in a more human direction!!!
The welcome speech was written with thanks to Erin O’Mara, Mauro Guarinieri, Andres Sotoc and Janko Belin.
Here is DrugReporters great little video to tell you a bit about what happened and you will see some of our colleagues and comrades talking eloquently about the 3 day event, filmed by comrade Igor Kouzmenko. Great work everyone.
The cold hard fact that people who use drugs still face unprecedented levels of violence, social exclusion, stigma, discrimination, incarceration, the death penalty, extra-judicial killings and torture in the name of treatment, is surely nothing new to this audience. In today’s age of prohibition, we, as a community, as activists standing here today, continue to be confronted with the fallout of a failing system. The effect this has on our health, personal freedom, rights and our lives continue to be far-reaching, and deadly. Thousands of people who use drugs continue to be have their lives irrevocably altered by arrest and imprisonment all across Europe, not only for what they consume, but some are still arrested just for carrying their prescribed Opiate Substitution Treatment, such as
Pic 2: Andriy Mykhaylovych Yarovyi, a comrade and citizen of Ukraine who has spent over 80 days in jail for carrying his 10 day supply.
In ,Eastern Europe and Central Asia half of all people in prison are people who use drugs. We all know the vulnerability experienced every time a person is released from prison, their lives permanently altered, the road back harder and longer with each release.
PIC3: The most principled and effective manner to reduce the risks associated with problematic drug use is to simply prevent people from being forcibly detained in the first place. And so we demand an immediate end to arrests, personal drug confiscation and imprisonment for possession.
Over and again our peers and allies continue to show overwhelming evidence that opiate substitution treatment saves lives and is cost effective. These are Medications that have been included in World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines for almost 20 years. Challenging the closure of services despite the evidence in front of us is occuring, yet again in Kazakhstan as we speak. And yet over again we bear witness that If you underfund vital substance misuse services people die!
PIC 4: We demand stable, ring fenced funding for harm reduction services!
Economic crises, austerity, and political pressure has affected the provision and reach of harm reduction services, even in countries where it has been embedded for decades such as the United Kingdom which has seen drug treatment lose around 25% of its funding due to austerity, while overdose rates hit their peak.
Pic 5 - Our Montenegrin peers protesting
Although some governments have stepped in to fill the recent gaps left by the donor retreat, Harm reduction International has reported that harm reduction services in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Greece, are witnessing a state of emergency. Our communities in Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina,and Romania have seen almost all their needle and syringe programmes closing down. As a consequence, HIV and hepatitis C epidemics are on the rise. The implications of this cannot be overstated.
As migration rolls on through Europe Intolerance and xenophobia has regained a foothold in ways not seen in decades and traumatised migrants and refugees are today experiencing head on the fallout from economic insecurity and misplaced nationalist fervour.
Pic 6 We demand respectful, affordable, safe social and medical assistance based on the real needs of people who use drugs regardless of their citizenship status.
As migration rolls on through Europe, so the politics of fear and division regain a foothold in ways not seen for decades. From the Balkans to the UK, from Sweden to Greece, far right groups are gaining ground jostling for new political positions. Through their narrow of interpretation of national identity, they are promoteing hate, tribalism and fear of the other.
Our community is no stranger to this tactic having been society’s scapegoats for many years. Just 2 months ago we would all be shocked to hear about The recent the lynching in the street of positive LGBT activist, human rights defender and performer Zac Kostopoulos in Greece. His death further brutalised by the public discourse of ‘junkie bashing’
PIC 7- Zac Kostopoulos
Our community is no stranger to this tactic having been society’s scapegoats for many years.
The medias rush to judgement that this ’junkie asked for it’,and the perpetrators links with far right groups, and all incredibly harrowing to witness for our comrades in Greece, as their colleagues death being further brutalised by the public discourse that was constructed to legitimize the violence that was perpetrated against him..
The fact that Zack was a proud gay man, and an HIV positive person who also happened to use drugs speaks to the increased intersectionality that cannot be further ignored while discussing social exclusion. In a climate that condones lynching people in the streets of a big European city, we have no choice but to look after each other by moving away from our own identity politics issues, and internal divisions.
PIC 8 = We demand an end to police harassment and brutality, and societal stigma just because we are people who use drugs.
Despite the large inroads made - as peers, partners and allies continue to descend on the UN agencies in Vienna, Geneva and New York year on year, it is clear that for reform to occur it will take more than all our combined efforts to change global conventions. Will take even more than our repeated engagement in lengthy UN-style processes .But it is through the strength of our voices - such as our ENPUD comrades who always speak so powerfully at the Commission for Narcotic Drugs, voicing their status, opening up their lives to curious officials while presenting the cold hard facts of the global war on drug users, we do see minds changing, we do witness cold hearts melting in the presence of such powerful humanity. And 10 years on, we do see the change at the CND.
PIC 9 - CND group picture
But It will also need governments to take risks, acknowledging that the war on drugs has failed and experimenting with more humane and progressive drug law reform and policy.
Where there has been progress, the lives of thousands of people depend on the journey continuing, while enabling us to gather evidence towards a world of regulation and legalisation. We know harm reduction works, and we know prohibition has failed, and now, like Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Canada and The Netherlands, government and civil society are making a powerful case for change.
PIC 10: We demand an end to prohibition and urge governments to find new and better ways of regulating the drug market. We are here as your partners demanding a new system of humanity and change.
But it is our hardworking peers at CASO in Portugal that are providing people both there and abroad with the privilege of insight that goes underneath the statistics and provides a more discerning view of the effects of decriminalisation both on the streets and in the lives of people.
PIC 11 - CASO our peers in Portugal working in the community.
And we all are informed that we cannot stop there -and that there is no time to rest on our laurels. So much is at stake that even where change has occurred we must continue to fight back against stagnation and inaction. The experiences of our peers are providing us with a rich tapestry of knowledge and expertise, and it is a clear sign to governments that our role is not that of mere patients awaiting treatment and support but of community activists and mobilisers, working hard to challenge, educate, and empower,
PIC 12 : We demand to contribute to society - as Empowered Participants Not Patronised Patients!
Like our peers in Norway, who’s value and importance cannot be overstated as their country also moves towards decriminalisation, and where insights gleaned from the Portuguese may mean even better choices will be made by Norwegians.. Our colleagues in the drug user group ProLar have made themselves Perfectly placed for this work, having already created a firm relationship with government, working as partners on Norways recent HCV Elimination strategy while their new Hepatitis C van offers rapid testing, nursing support and even fibroscanning.
PIC13 : PROLAR: Our norweigen peers standing outside their Hep C bus
Naloxone, the opiate agonist, continues to showcase more of the lifesaving work our community undertakes in many countries across Europe. In Italy, A caravan called -“Never without Naloxone” is about to undertake a 5 city Italian tour where peers will meet up with drug users, citizens and civil society organizations, to raise awareness on the importance of good practices for the prevention of overdose. Our Italian colleagues are determined to get naloxone into the hands of everyone who needs it.
PIC 14 : We demand naloxone is available to everyone who needs it, without restriction or prescription.
And we demand the adequate resourcing of life saving community projects by people who use drugs
As the warp and weft of all social systems change with the indelible mark of the internet and digital technologies, we have witnessed a destabilisation of norms and rules. This is true not just for national and global institutions – trade, commerce,work arrangements, etc. but also to social and cultural arenas of communication, media and knowledge. The flux we are witness to can be harnessed by our community and we can develop this into a productive space that can mark a departure from traditional norms that define our views about drugs. Harm reduction gave our community a language that made talking about drugs legitimate and acceptable. But we have a much bolder, creative language found in our most intimate relationship with substances and it is from there in which we will reach out to the cyber community, a place where millions of people talk freely and openly about maximising pleasure and minimising pain. It is a new language of harm reduction and one that as a community we can embrace, strengthening our movement, and deepening empathic connections with a (new)generation. It is exciting and as yet, is untapped, save for the fascinating work done by Alexi Kurmanaevskii, who has been diving the depths of the dark web and connecting with a new drug using frontier .
Drug prohibition has had a devastating global impact on individuals, families, communities and countries. In decades to come, it will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in recent history.
We look forward to sharing our knowledge and our views at this conference, and we would like to thank the role our friends and partners have taken in supporting us during some of these most turbulent of times.
The exciting opportunities, friendships and unity that lies in the intersection of groups led by societys most courageous; have either begun or are being sought, for it is only sharing our strength, our knowledge and solidarity will we ever hope to create this new dawn of humanity, and pull away from the ashes and chains of prohibition.