CSSDP Chair Nazlee Maghsoudi attended the 10th National Harm Reduction Conference, a monumental event for drug policy reform in the US. For the first time in history, the US Drug Czar presented during the opening of the conference. This is a huge step for drug policy reform internationally, as traditionally the US has led the drug war. Learn more about Nazlee’s experience by reading the daily blog posts she created for Harm Reduction Coalition, where she is currently an intern in partnership with International Drug Policy Coalition. Donald MacPherson (pictured above), Canadian Drug Policy Coalition’s Executive Director and CSSDP’s Strategic Advisor, was also at the 10th National Harm Reduction Conference.
Marking day zero of the 10th National Harm Reduction Conference, today’s pre-conferencefocused on overdose prevention. Attendees discussed the progress of “above ground” opioid overdose prevention activities, and even had the opportunity to pick up naloxone. With over 150 harm reduction supporters excited and in attendance a day before the conference begins, this year’s conference is sure to be a success!
Although most people are aware of the recent rise in opioid overdose deaths, it is worth understanding how the statistics compare for prescription opioid overdoses and heroin overdoses, commonly referred to as the “twin epidemics.” Phillip Coffin noted that since 2010, there has been a decrease in prescription opioid overdoses, largely as a result of changes to prescribing practices. However, as prescription opioid users switch to heroin, this reduction in deaths has been accompanied by a rise in heroin overdoses. After highlighting these statistics, Phillip Coffin posed the million-dollar question: Is the rise in heroin use a consequence of restricted access to pharmaceutical opioids (pills are simply too difficult to get) or a purposeful transition (pills are not strong enough)? The answer, he suggested, is likely both. Regardless of the reason, does the relationship between restrictions on prescription opioids and increased overdose deaths from heroin suggest that the overdose epidemic is iatrogenic…meaning doctors caused it? Concrete and definitive answers are unlikely to be found to these questions, but the apparent relationship certainly suggests that doctors have a responsibility to support the provision of naloxone.
Daniel Raymond described the bi-annual conference as a homecoming for the harm reduction community. It certainly felt that way as over one thousand passionate harm reduction-ists gathered this morning for the first day of the 10th National Harm Reduction Conference. Before beginning the speaker presentations, attendees reinforced the importance of harm reduction by taking a moment to remember those lost allies who could not be with us today.
After a warm introduction from Daniel Raymond, who characterized the relationship between the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and Harm Reduction Coalition as “having each others backs,”Mr. Michael Botticelli, Acting Director of ONDCP, gave the welcoming address. Mr. Botticelli highlighted three issues of urgent concern that he felt the federal government and the harm reduction community have in common. The first concern was the need for sentencing reform, specifically to address the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. Mr. Botticelli acknowledged that these laws disproportionately affect people of color and must be revised to remove systemic and institutionalized discrimination. The importance of emphasizing the human element when reviewing these laws was expressed when he said, “behind a rap sheet, there is a real person.” The second concern Mr. Botticelli described was the need to prevent overdose and the misuse of prescription drugs. Given that Good Samaritan and Naloxone Access laws are in place, he believed that presence of law enforcement in rural, urban and suburban areas put them in an advantageous position to administer naloxone. State and local law enforcement have already begun to carry naloxone, often after receiving training from Harm Reduction Coalition. Mr. Botticelli also emphasized that since four out of five people that newly begin using heroin started as using prescription opioids, it is especially important that we continue limiting the non-medical use of prescription opioids and ensure that treatment is available. The inadequate availability of drug assisted treatment was the third concern that Mr. Botticelli addressed. He stressed the importance of ensuring that drug assisted treatment is available, particularly methadone and buprenorphine treatment, as “people maintained on medication assisted treatment do not die.” In his concluding remarks, Mr. Botticelli said that despite the federal funding ban, the federal government recognizes that syringe access programs are a vital part of a comprehensive strategy for preventing blood borne infections and helping people who use drugs access and enter treatment. He asked that the audience interpret his attendance today as reflecting the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to drug policy reform. As evidenced by the standing ovation, Mr. Botticelli’s presentation was very well received.
“It is time to get outraged about international drug policy.”
The words above, said by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch from Open Society Foundations, left an impression on audience members yesterday as they were reminded of the injustices that take place globally in the name of drug policy. Ms. Malinowska-Sempruch spoke about the upcoming United Nations Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016 where heads of state and high level officials will come together to discuss international drug policy. Normally, the documents produced by the UN do very little but reaffirm the existing international drug control regime and prohibitionist approach. Given that the UNGASS was moved to an earlier date because three heads of state requested a real evaluation of international drug policy, there is the possibility that this meeting could be different, but civil society must mobilize if we are to see favourable outcomes.
Without a plenary, yesterday was the first day of the10th National Harm Reduction Conference in which conference attendees designed their own schedule by picking from the variety of panels, workshops, and roundtables available. The reflections below highlight some of the most thought provoking ideas conference attendees came across during the third day of the conference.
Prior to attending the conference, John Kimani from the Kenya Network of People Who Use Drugs (KENPUD) was concerned that the focus would be very US-centric and therefore not highly applicable to his work. However, to his surprise, he found that the conference had a significant international focus, with conference attendees from Canada and Latin America. Kimani felt that the issues discussed and topics covered were very applicable to his work, and that the conference was in reality, “about all of us.” Since harm reduction is a new concept in Kenya, Kimani and his colleagues are still learning the best practices in the space (though aren’t we all?). He was particularly concerned about the naloxone situation in Kenya. Although naloxone is available to emergency medical responders and in needle and syringe programs, it is not distributed to community members. Given the poor infrastructure, specifically in regards to roads, emergency responders are unlikely to reach people having an opioid overdose in time. Kimani intends on working to show communities and governments that community access to naloxone is essential to saving lives. He felt that the conference provided him with some valuable strategies for increasing the strength of his message. First, Kimani has learned that data is a persuasive and necessary tool when attempting to persuade opponents about the effectiveness of a harm reduction measure, such as naloxone. He intends on working to collect statics on the number of opioid overdose deaths and the number of reversals taking place throughout Kenya. Second, Kimani noted that the conference taught him the importance of purposefully framing his messaging. He believes that naloxone can only be embraced by communities when it is understood as part of harm reduction, and when harm reduction is understood the same way he understands it, as about saving lives.
The 10th National Harm Reduction Conference came to a close on Sunday. After four conference days, and one pre-conference session, attendees left Baltimore with new knowledge, ideas, connections, and inspiration. Conference attendees expressed that although the panels, workshops, and roundtables were highly useful, it was often the conversations had during the in between times that were the most personally impactful. And the discussions won’t stop here! In the words of one conference attendee, “We must keep talking, because if we don’t talk about harm reduction, no one will.”
Since conference attendees were able to make their own schedules on Sunday by choosing from the variety of panels, workshops, and roundtables available, this blog post will highlight some of the most thought provoking ideas from one of the sessions.