The world’s biggest drug policy meeting is set for tomorrow

This is the UNGASS: The United Nations General Assembly Special Session, and on April 19-21, member states will be in complete attendance to talk about the World Drug Problem — a problem no longer about the drugs.

 What happens when policies terrify an expectant mother from seeking prenatal care, keep kids away from school instead of in it, or leave somebody dying of an overdose because friends are too afraid to ask for help?

In 1998, the UNGASS cry was, “A drug-free world, we can do it!” which is set for evaluation a full two decades later.

But the world has realized we can no longer afford to wait.

The War on Drugs is wreaking more havoc than the drugs themselves, and “revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed.” Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala have called to move the UNGASS earlier, co-sponsored by 93 other member-states. In an urgent move, the member states have moved UNGASS to 2016.

The growing global movement is recognizing the need to invest in policies that work. Policies that harm cannot be the policies in place. Harm Reduction is an approach that makes sure everybody is safe, healthy, alive, and living a life worth living — whether or not they use drugs.

Representing the country, NoBox Philippines spoke at the United Nations Informal Interactive Stakeholder Consultation in preparation for UNGASS 2016 last Feb. 10. Its message challenges the status quo that it champions harm reduction. NoBox will deliver the same message in the UNGASS this week.

The relationship between drugs and health, as we were taught, was this: drug use leads to problems, which then require treatment, and then, everything’s going to be okay. If not, then it’s your fault.

It is not that simple, or as linear.

People have different lives, with different stories. And it’s tremendously helpful to understand, without judgment, each one’s.

Often, drug use simply does not take center stage in someone’s list of concerns. So whatever concern they bring us, that is what we work on together.

And at times, this means drug use shall continue during treatment. And that’s alright. We use this golden opportunity to engage that person at a point where they want to make positive changes in their life! It’s at that opportunity that change begins. And to deny treatment, as many do, because someone is still using is unethical.

Back home, many are forced — sometimes literally dragged and drugged — into treatment. But evidence and experience show that people do come on their own: when they know they won’t be judged or humiliated; they won’t be punished; when they feel understood. They come, they connect, they access treatment, they continue it, and they stay with it.

This is harm reduction. In an environment that allows it, this is what happens.

When we had the needle syringe program, people lined up by the hundreds, infections stabilized, some even sought further treatment. This tells us that people who use drugs care about themselves, and they will access the services necessary — and relevant — to them.

But our needle syringe program was condemned and halted. And we lost the connection as soon as we had it, when we urgently needed it!

The Philippines now has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world. Nearly every person injecting drugs diagnosed with HIV has Hepatitis C. And they all have nowhere to go.

Back home, drug use is a crime. In poor communities, the only response to drug use they know comes from the police. People are left with very few options, fear driving many further underground and into isolation, with families totally at a loss at what to do.

People targeted and brought to jail become exposed to traumatic abuses and health risks. People have died in prison before conviction, some before even reaching trial. We may not have the death penalty, but people are being sentenced nonetheless to silent executions.

It is very clear: to punish is to sabotage. Criminalization, compulsory treatment, and isolation do nothing to protect and promote health and welfare.

Government and civil society need to trust each other, and build on each other’s strengths and resources. It is essential that in Civil Society, and especially the affected population, be unafraid for our lives when we take an active role, a role we need to have not as an accommodation, but as real partners.

Harm reduction is preventive treatment. Harm reduction is evidence-based treatment. Harm reduction — kindness — simply put, saves lives.

And isn’t that the whole point?

Please let us not be afraid of Harm Reduction. It is the most operationally beautiful gift that we have. It gives back people the dignity that they have lost, that was taken away from them. And it saves lives, period.

Ma. Inez Feria is the executive director NoBox Transitions Foundation, Inc. — Philippines

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