September2 2020 | Page 15

HARM REDUCTION BE ACTIVE! A webinar to mark International Overdose Awareness day heard ideas from peer networks in the Netherlands, Ukraine and Norway. DDN reports months ago we identified that we don’t hear the voice of active drug users. ‘Eighteen So we set up a group for injecting drug users in Glasgow City Centre.’ Jason Wallace, senior development officer at the Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF) explained how the groups, at each end of the city centre, were working well. ‘We have our voices heard, for better drug treatment and better health.’ Chairing the SDF webinar, he then asked Theo Van Dam, ‘founding father of drug using movements in the Netherlands’, to talk about how he organised the groups effectively. ‘With the first group, my interest was health promotion,’ said Van Dam. ‘We got money for this. We wanted eight field workers. This was a serious job so it needed to pay serious money.’ The government made the point that the workers might buy Olga Belyaeva from Ukraine described how 30 years of propaganda had ‘legalised discrimination against people who use drugs’. drugs with this money. ‘But my response was, “So what? I don’t know what you’re doing with your money.”’ Undeterred, he got groups together and paid travel costs immediately. They talked about what was going on in each city, the methadone programmes and the ‘ridiculous’ fact that people had to International Overdose Awareness Day is a global event held on 31 August each year that aims to raise people’s awareness around overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related death. attend every day at the same time. They spoke to social workers and policymakers and politicians. Having structure was an important part of successful progress, says Van Dam, and to be ‘a serious partner to whoever you’re talking to’. The groups looked at how things were being done, right down to house rules in the day centre – ‘We said it’s too much, too many.’ They ended up with one rule: to ‘behave normal’. There have been serious setbacks – including the closure of the day centre by police. But there have also been successes, such as getting police and social workers along to see drug users taking drugs – a huge step forward in understanding and empathy. Olga Belyaeva from Ukraine described how 30 years of propaganda had ‘legalised discrimination against people who use drugs’. As coordinator for the Eurasian Network of People who Use Drugs, she had been fortunate to meet like-minded activists and hear about naloxone – much needed in a country that ignored harm reduction. ‘To come into OST you have to be HIV positive, so some people tried to be infected,’ she said. Mental health issues were prevalent within her community and it was difficult to get a job. There was great need to create social enterprises. Arild Knutsen of the Association for Humane Drug User Policy shared experience in Norway. The country’s first drug consumption room in 2005, alongside harm reduction and calls for legalisation, had come against opposition from the Drug Abusers Association, an organisation from the temperance movement. ‘So we realised we needed representation – more substitution treatment and more access to treatment,’ he said. With ‘big political pressure’ against drug consumption rooms and ‘more police actions against open drug societies’, the association organised a rally and protested against drug policy. ‘We were invited into parliament,’ he says, ‘and this became drug users’ day. We go in every year to discuss policy.’ The dialogue needed to extend to talking to people all the time, including reaching out to media. ‘We did this in a respectful way, so we can live in harmony,’ he says, but the message was firm: ‘Many people are dying of overdoses.’ As a field worker Knutsen was in a position to make an immediate difference, handing out naloxone. The association had a ‘switch’ campaign, encouraging people to smoke heroin instead of injecting it. Since then there have been important milestones, including involving politicians in a decriminalisation campaign and improvements in substitution programmes. Oslo and Bergen have developed heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) programmes, ‘so drug policy is changing now,’ he says. In a Q&A session chaired by Kirsten Horsburgh of SDF, speakers were asked for the key difference people who use drugs could make when changing drug policy. ‘You have to be an organiser’ and ‘you have to cooperate’, said Van Dam. ‘If people can count on you, you can make steps.’ Knutsen agreed that it was important not to be seen as ‘the enemy – just drug users, drug abusers’ but as people who can run democratic organisations. ‘We are important resources,’ he said. DDN WWW.DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS.COM SEPTEMBER 2020 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • 15