– Naomi Burke-Shyne, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International
– Geoff Gallop, Member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy
– Gabrielle Williams, Victorian Minister for Mental Health
– Paul Hunt, New Zealand Chief Human Rights Commissioner
– Judy Chang, Executive Director of International Network of People who Use Drugs
I would like to thank Harm Reduction International (HRI) for providing this dynamic forum to share the latest research and discussions on practices in drug use, harm reduction and human rights. Especially at a time when the voices of the people most affected by drug policies around the world, are in desperate need for not only policy reform, but a pathway that navigates communities to realising shared, long-term value within a system that upholds compassionate and sustainable outcomes; and replaces harmful practices with human-centred, science based development. By mending our political, economic, and social approaches and building a language and understanding of holistic concern, we can create a standard by which the world can abide by.
Over the last few days, we have learned so much from each other, confirming that there is strength in solidarity. As people, as a community, and as a global movement we can rally and unify social forces and ensure that the paradigm does shift with regard to drug policy.
Year-on-year, this Conference attracts diverse and wide-ranging individuals and organisations, who gather to harness their abilities; develop partnerships; exchange vital science; and chart pathways towards a more humane; equitable and inclusive society for all.
Guided by evidence and the science of what helps to deliver our shared health objectives and social goals, we are further able to protect, respect, and fulfil the right to health, without prejudice or stigma — this is the true potential of harm reduction practices.
Harm reduction improves public health; is cost-effective; may decrease or eliminate risky practices among people who use drugs; and significantly reduces disease transmission and fatal overdose.
Therefore, supporting and strengthening harm reduction services in all regions around the world, is an essential tool in the delicate balancing act of sustaining and transforming human life.
With this in mind, could the harm reduction context serve as an inspiration and a platform for us to innovate new ways to organise and coordinate our campaigns?
It was on December 10, 1948, with the birth of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that UN member states pledged to promote respect for the human rights of all.
However, for the purposes of this Conference, lets us fast-forward to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that listed those substances that required strict legal controls.
In an article in Criminology and Criminal Justice, by Stuart Taylor, Julian Buchanan, and Tammy Ayres entitled, “Prohibition, Privilege and the Drug Apartheid: The failure of drug policy reform to address the underlying fallacies of drug prohibition” The authors eloquently explain the following which may shed light on a global pattern of power dynamics — allow me to paraphrase, if I may:
“Policies of drug decriminalisation, legalisation and regulation are materialising in a number of jurisdictions around the world, a phenomena welcomed by critics of prohibition who have long exposed its lack of evidence base efficacy and legitimacy.”
Whilst these reforms have been posited as progressive, Taylor, Buchanan, and Ayres argue that they represent merely a ‘metamorphosis of prohibition’ whereby the face of drug policy changes yet the fundamental principles remain unaffected. They go on to illustrate how inadvertently, this ‘reform revolution’, camouflages the underlying contradictions that have lain at the heart of global drug policy since they were enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961.
By exposing how the fundamental inconsistencies of drug prohibition continue to be accommodated in policy reform, the authors identify the untenable flawed assumptions underpinning drug law enforcement and prohibition.
And, that certain fallacies used to legitimise drug prohibition lack an evidence base, and instead draw upon myth and a reductionist discourse that obscures nuanced drug policy debate.
These fallacies arbitrarily frame particular substances as ‘drugs’, omitting other substances as legal and socially acceptable, and skew the risks of ‘drug use’ by focussing almost exclusively on specific types of use and users, and concentrating attention upon apparent associated negative outcomes.
The authors reveal how this process allows certain substances to attain an unwarranted position of privilege whilst others are prohibited, creating what they term a ‘drug apartheid’ – a deeply divisive system of segregation and punishment determined by the substance used.
With a focus on marginalised minorities, black and indigenous peoples; Taylor, Buchanan, and Ayres succinctly go on to give reason for how the central tenets of prohibition remain within ‘liberal reforms’, that is the ability to criminalise and severely punish those who use drugs. They explain how such processes have been historically steeped in prejudice, resulting in a racially motivated ‘war on drugs’ and despite reform, discrimination and inequality endures.
No doubt, some if not many delegates here today, may agree that given the lack of evidence and scientific analysis upholding both prohibition and well intentioned reforms, that a repeal of drug laws is necessary.
With history as a teacher, we may witness how the human race certainly waits until it hangs precariously on the precipice before it rallies to organise, to respond and to act.
For a change in course, away from an abyss of enduring suffering, all indicators point to harm reduction as model for humanity.
It was repeated throughout many of our discussions that there is a need to address the challenges faced in the implementation of harm reduction services. In many places, availability, accessibility, and quality of services remain important issues to tackle; while services are also unevenly distributed in most countries.
Since 2020, the COVID19 pandemic has added extra layers of challenges to communities around the world, and particularly for people who use drugs: in countries where harm reduction services exist, they were often forced to close or be reduced, and public health was militarised.
In Africa, the pandemic has had a debilitating impact on HIV and harm reduction services as limited operating hours; fewer outreach programs; and economic challenges resulted in poorer access to services and increased risk-taking.
However, such crises also demonstrated the resilience of services led by people who use drugs, who adapted their operations to ensure that people in need could still benefit from Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT) and other relevant services.
By recognizing that prohibition and criminalization have put people at even more risk, further stigmatizing and marginalizing people who use drugs and/or who are involved in drug trafficking and production, we encourage local and national governments to adopt a public health and human rights approach to drug policies based on scientific evidence.
To this end, the Global Commission recommends five pathways to drug policies that work:
1) Put people’s health and safety first.
2) Ensure access to essential medicines and pain control.
3) End the criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs.
4) Refocus enforcement responses to drug trafficking and organized crime.
5) Regulate drug markets to put governments in control.
However, even within the harm reduction services, there lies a stark empathy gap.
How do we narrow this gap to ensure that no one falls through the cracks of this divide?
Perhaps it is by applying an expanded contextual understanding: that stigma already exists for marginalised people and that the negative effects of shame and exclusion, doubles-up on the stigma of substance use disorder and those who use drugs.
However, it takes political will and leadership to implement harm reduction practices.
No two countries nor two communities are exactly the same and therefore it may be helpful to have customised programmes which involve the marginalised and people who use drugs.
And, tailoring the interventions to suit a community, allows us to add to the knowledge pool and advance harm reduction.
And so, if we are to interrogate with intentionality, how we can be more helpful and reduce harm, then we are to organise and mobilise for the investment of more resources and dedicate more of ourselves to the study and development of harm reduction services in more communities for more people, everywhere.
Again taking history as a shepherd, we may understand more clearly that the future is not a place we are going to but a place we create through our own actions.
And in so doing, we must support and propel more platforms such as the Harm Reduction International Conference to further refine the definition of our historical mission. For that is what is, our historical mission.
To affect and influence policy, and therefore to shape the outcomes we hope for, we must organise ourselves for common benefit. Through solidarity, we must be conscious that our agency as civil society must come to the fore. That these issues are not just for one organisation but for all of civil society to further unite as an organised movement for the common good.
During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a global anti-apartheid movement developed, for instance: in the United States of America, an organisation called Trans-Africa led by Randal Robinson, tracked down and called out American corporates that were investing in South Africa under the oppressive regime, in order to isolate these companies in support for the call to disinvest from apartheid.
So, what is needed is a global movement which can coordinate and share information so that campaigns can be mounted in each and every country.
Generally speaking, people always form organisations for a purpose, and so, the point is to find synergies and meeting points in pursuance of a common cause like rivulets which decant into a main stream.
This Conference not only serves as an opportunity to reflect but to identify new ways to increase our voice and to coordinate and channel our efforts towards the creation of a fair and just world order.
Let today, the last day of the conference, be the first day of our reenergised and more concerted effort to improve drug policy – at local, to regional and to global levels. There is strength in solidarity so let us capitalize on that, by matching capital’s ability to nestle and settle everywhere in the world.
And finally, if we may suggest a watchword for those who use drugs and marginalised communities, it would be, NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US.
I thank you.