Around a thousand people, including some of the nation's foremost experts in treating, researching and developing responses to methamphetamine use, gathered at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City as Science and Response: The 2nd Annual Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis got underway Thursday. Sponsored by the Salt Lake City-based Harm Reduction Project, the conference aimed at developing evidence-based "best practices" for responding to meth and emphasized prevention and treatment instead of prison for
This year's conference was uncontroversial -- a marked change from the first one, also held in Salt Lake City, which was attacked by congressional arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) because presenters openly discussed the impact of meth on the gay community. Souder was also incensed that the US Department of Health and Human Services provided limited financial support for the conference, and authored a successful amendment to the appropriations bill funding the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy calling for an investigation of the conference and HHS policy.
"The fact that there is absolutely no controversy this year indicates more than just a leadership change in Congress. It shows that our approach -- bringing together all the stakeholders and families affected by meth -- is the right one," said Harm Reduction Project executive director Luciano Colonna in a statement on the eve of the conference.
While Colonna sounded sanguine in the statement above, he was less so as he opened the conference Thursday morning. Visibly choking up at times as he sounded the theme of this year's conference, "500 Days Later," he noted that since the first conference in August 2005, "thousands have died or been incarcerated." And Colonna could not resist a reference to Souder and ideological allies in Congress. "There's no need to mention the names of cheap mudslingers because their party lost," he said to loud applause.
"I'm tired of seeing meth users incarcerated because of failed theories and practices followed by many treatment providers, faith-based groups and other organizations," Colonna said. "We look to the criminal justice system to solve our problems, and its participation has been a result of our failure. Just as with the homeless, veterans, and the mentally ill, we have failed as a system of care and as a country. We have the audacity to attack the criminal justice system as if the strands of this mess can be separated out, but we are all culpable."
If Colonna wasn't going to name names, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson had no such compunctions. As he welcomed attendees to his city, Anderson hit back. "I will say Souder's name," Anderson proclaimed. "We shouldn't ever forget the people who caused so much damage. They don't care that needle exchange programs help injection drug users avoid HIV; they have the attitude that if people use drugs, they deserve what they get. People like Mark Souder would rather make political hay out of tragedy rather than having the integrity to deal with issues based on facts and research."
Citing drug use surveys that put the number of people who used meth within the last year at 1.3 million and the number who used within the last month at 500,000, Anderson pointed out that, "If it were up to Souder, they would all be in prison."
Mayor Anderson, a strong drug reform proponent, had a better idea. "Those numbers are the purest case for harm reduction," he argued. "We know there are people who will use drugs and we can reduce the harm, not only for them and their families, but for all of us. The current approach is so wasteful and cost ineffective. And thanks to you, treatment programs are much more available, but in too many areas, you have to get busted to get affordable treatment. It is time to make treatment on demand available for everybody," he said to sustained cheering and applause.
Given the topic of the conference, it is not surprising that attendees are a different mix than what one would expect at a strictly drug reform conference. While drug reformers were present in respectable numbers -- the Drug Policy Alliance in particular had a large contingent -- they are outnumbered by harm reductionists, treatment providers and social service agency workers. Similarly, with the event's emphasis on "Science and Reason," the panels were heavy with research results and presentations bearing names like "Adapting Gay-Affirmative, Evidence-Based Interventions for Use in a Community-Based Drug Treatment Clinic," "Stimulant Injectors From Three Ukraine Cities," and "The Impact of Meth Use on Inpatient Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities for Youth in Canada."
The mix of interests and orientations led to some fireworks at the first conference, especially around the issue of stimulant maintenance therapy, or providing meth users with a substitute stimulant, such as dextroamphetamine, much as heroin users are prescribed methadone. Such issues may excite controversy again this year, but an opening day panel on the topic caused only a few raised eyebrows -- not any outbursts of indignation. The controversy is likely to come in Vancouver, where Mayor Sam Sullivan recently announced he wanted to implement an amphetamine maintenance pilot program with some 700 subjects.
With three full days of plenaries, panels, breakout session, and workshops, last weekend's conference not only provided information on best practices for educators, prevention workers, and treatment providers, but also helped broaden the rising chorus of voices calling for more enlightened methamphetamine policies. In addition, the conference pointed the Chronicle to a number of meth-related issues that bear further reporting, from the spread of repressive legislation in the states to the effort to expand drug maintenance therapies to stimulant drugs like meth and the resort of some states to criminalizing pregnant drug-using mothers. Look for reports on these topics in the Chronicle in coming weeks.