4th May issue

Life and death

Harm reduction at international level goes beyond choice

One slightly built young woman trembled on the platform at the International Harm Reduction Conference. She was introduced as a passionate campaigner for drug users’ rights and a harm reduction pioneer, preventing overdose with naloxone in Cambodia. But when it came to Srey Mao’s turn to speak, she just couldn’t. The slides for her talk rolled behind her and showed her own face, looking through bars of a cage she was sharing with many others, young and old. In the end her colleague stepped up to give her talk for her, and it became obvious why she couldn’t relive her torture in a compulsory drug treatment centre, where she also witnessed the deaths of two of her friends.

This woman was not an international drug baron. Neither was Shaharudin bin Ali Umar, on our front cover, and many others who attended the conference in Thailand. The location gave an opportunity for a completely eye-opening few days, right up to the IHRA film festival awards at the end. The winning film, ‘A cleaner fix’ featured Timotius Hadi, an HIV-positive former heroin user whose organisation, Karisma, distributed clean needles to drug using communities in Indonesia that have been devastated by HIV and Aids.

The conference tackled global drug policy and offered some inspiring international speakers, who demonstrated through facts and figures that ignoring harm reduction not only makes no sense in public health and financial terms, but also represents the reckless choice to proliferate bloodborne viruses. But what really struck me was the presence of the ordinary people whose lives had been scarred by their drug-using communities and who were trapped in a cycle of crime and punishment they were doomed to repeat. Harm reduction in many countries of the world takes on a different scale to some of our UK debates, and made me realise that the semantics at international policy level mean the difference between life and death.

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