International Harm Reduction Conference

Being a part of the Harm Reduction Community implies fighting for the rights of people who use drugs, but other communities as well; it implies passion, togetherness and love for human beings. And yet, during the opening ceremony of the 25th Harm Reduction Conference held in May in Montreal, Canada, Sedalia Kawennotas Fazio, from the Mohawk people, reminded us that in keeping with Mohawk values, lack of care and respect for Mother Earth and nature imparts lack of love for people too. Montreal, a city in Quebec, was traditionally on Mohawk territory and on this occasion the hostess Sedalia welcomed us with a traditional Mohawk prayer, recapturing a time when the human rights concept corresponded to the rights of nature and respect for it. After her speech, the Canadian Minister of Health addressed the participants, taking us back to another surreal time when the lack of harm reduction programs results with deaths throughout the world; a time when politicians decide driven by ideology, deprived of love for their people. A group of Canadian participants protested during the Minister’s speech, demanding specific decisions instead of prolonged political discussions. “They talk – we die” was a frequent sign and parole chanted at the conference.

Despite the advanced harm reduction programs, Canada has been facing a fentanyl epidemic this past year. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid, similar to morphine, but 50 to 100 times more potent. It is an easily accessible prescription drug, with the number of fentanyl overdose death cases in Canada and the U.S. steadily growing. Hence, the Ministry of Health urges towards specific measures for protection of the population.   
    
Over 1,000 people participated at the conference. The 48 sessions and workshops, discussions, a film festival etc. broached different topics on drug use. Ethan Nadelmann stressed the need for alliances among human rights movements, while in her inspirational speech, Deborah Peterson Small’s talked about drug use normalization as a means to fight stigma and discrimination, pointing that the war on drugs is in fact a war on people, in this case, the Hispanics and black people in the U.S.   

INPUD – The International Network of People Who Use Drugs joined by their Canadian counterparts organized several sessions on sharing their experience in coordination and activism, and the most commonly faced problems.

A session on youth and children who use drugs confirmed that the average age of consumption is dropping, while specially designated programs for this group are a rarity. 
Cannabis use as an alternative approach to harm reduction was of particular interest at the conference. Social clubs from Spain shared their experiences on this topic, the South African Republic presented their legalization initiatives, while Canada promoted two models (a profit and non-profit one) on cannabis legalization. At the moment, there is an ongoing public debate and the Government is soon expected to pass a law to legalize cannabis use.

The participants had the opportunity to visit several harm reduction programs in Montreal. I personally visited 6 programs for youth and children who use drugs and arrived at the conclusion that Canada is a socially advanced country. All social and healthcare services are free, with a fascinating number of diverse programs, and even a special clinic for health and psychosocial services to children and youth on the street with a staff of 200 employees to take care of their daily problems and needs.

Finally, I would like express how pleased I was that at this year’s conference, HOPS’s partners of many years, Peter Sarosi and Istvan Gabor Takacs, recognized for the website Drug Reporter and their video advocacy, received the International Rolleston Award. The Award is given to an individual, or a team in this case, for outstanding work in the field of international harm reduction.

Vlatko Dekov