More than 100 activists representing at least 13 different drug user groups from Europe, North America, Latin America, Australia, and Asia took advantage of the International Harm Reduction Association conference in Vancouver this week to form an international coalition. At the first ever International Drug User Activists Congress on Sunday and in numerous sessions throughout the week, the groups and individuals involved managed to craft an initial declaration and lay the groundwork for increased coordination among user activist groups.
The user activist organizations intend to push for the universalization of harm reduction and an end to human rights violations against drug users. But the coalition has also formed with an eye on influencing the United Nations' General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy set for Vienna in 2008 (or now, possibly 2009).
For years, user activists have complained that existing drug policy and harm reduction organizations run by non-using professionals fail to adequately represent their interests. The meetings and declaration this week in Vancouver are an effort by user activists to ensure that the subjects of drug laws and drug policy debates -- drug users -- have their voices heard loud and clear in the future.
"We want the chance to speak for ourselves, to be heard and to be treated with basic dignity and respect," said Andria Efthimiou of the John Mordant Trust. "Drug users are one of the most marginalized and stigmatized groups in the community. Even in the context of this event, one of our leading colleagues -- Bijay Pandey of the group Recovering Nepal -- was denied a Canadian entry visa. It is time to take a stand against the way that drug users are treated in society and we believe the congress and harm reduction conference is a great way to highlight the urgent need for action."
Drug user organizations currently exist in dozens of countries, including Canada, the US, Australia, Denmark, Britain, Thailand, among others, and have already contributed mightily to making drug laws and policies more humane and responsive to drug user needs. In the host city of Vancouver, for instance, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) established the first supervised safe injection site in North America, prompting the city and province to establish the first "official" safe injection site in North America. VANDU has also played a key role in the development of Vancouver's cutting edge Four Pillars drug policy.
Similarly, in Thailand, the Thai Drug Users Network has successfully worked to expand access to HIV prevention and treatment services for drug users and to document human rights abuses against them. And in England, several drug user groups are working with the government to produce a national Hepatitis C strategy.
"We have a large and growing international drug user activist network and the international congress was used to finalize a statement about this unique network's aims and members," said Grant McNally of the English National Users and Hepatitis C Foundation.
"We are people from around the world who use drugs," reads the consensus document released Tuesday. "We are people who have been marginalized and discriminated against; we have been killed, harmed unnecessarily, put in jail, depicted as evil, and stereotyped as dangerous and disposable. Now it is time to raise our voices as citizens, establish our rights and reclaim the right to be our own spokespersons striving for self-representation and self-empowerment."
According to the declaration, the International Drug Users Group will, through inclusive and democratic means, fight for universal access to drug treatment and appropriate medical care, the availability of safer drug use equipment and consumption facilities, and ultimately, "regulated access to the pharmaceutical quality drugs we need." As one of its goals, the declaration lists "to challenge the national legislation and international conventions that currently disable most of us from living safe, secure and healthy lives."
"I hope the international network and the declaration we crafted will be the start of our involvement as drug user groups in all kinds of institutions," said Stijn Gossens of the Belgian users' group STAD and the Breakline peer support group for the dance scene. "We are ready to be partners with the institutions."
The process this week in Vancouver has been excruciatingly democratic, with meeting after meeting and lengthy discussions around the wording of documents. "This is like the frigging United Nations," said Mauro Galineri, chair of the Global Network of People with AIDS, at one point during the seemingly endless proceedings.
"Ultimately," the declaration continued, "the most profound need to establish such a network arises from the fact that no group of oppressed people ever attained liberation without the involvement of those directly affected by this oppression. Through collective action, we will fight to change existing local, national, regional and international drug laws and formulate an evidence-based drug policy that respects people's human rights and dignity instead of one fuelled on moralism, stereotypes and lies."
"This arose out of a meeting of drug user groups at the last international harm reduction convention in Belfast," said Ann Livingston of VANDU, the de facto hosts for the international user groups event. "The consensus there was we needed to endure the process of setting up a legally registered entity and an international group of people who use drugs," she told DRCNet. "The sense was that this is the 17th international harm reduction conference about this problem centered on people who use illegal drugs, and it's about time the people who use illegal drugs have an organization for themselves. Users feel set aside or neglected, even by our allies," she said.
Fellow harm reductionists in Vancouver this week certainly had the opportunity to hear from drug users, as the International Harm Reduction Association hosted numerous sessions by members of user groups.
"The congress has provided a unique opportunity for drug users working in drug user self help networks from many different countries to meet face to face and share information and skills," said Annie Madden of the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League.
The organization is now seeking funding to continue and expand its work, said Mordaunt. "The speaker who represented the UN AIDS effort said here that drug user groups should be funded," she noted. "I believe this is the first time they have said that. We will be following up with the UN AIDS people and telling them to put their money where their mouth is," she told DRCNet. "We are also looking at the European Commission on Drug Policy as another potential donor," she said.
"If we can get off the ground, we will be working on issues surrounding human rights violations against drug users, whether it's being executed in China or murdered in Thailand or thrown in prison in the United States," said Mordaunt. "At the same time, we will push for the universalization of harm reduction practices, and yes, we will be lobbying for the reform of the drug laws at both the national and international levels," she added.
"This isn't some intellectual exercise about the right to use drugs," said VANDU's Livingston. "This is a social justice movement for people languishing in prisons and alleys around the world."
And it is long past due.