by Suzy Subways, Editor, Solidarity Project
JUNE 2007 • Issue 5
We know that drug use—both legal and illegal—can increase a person’s HIV risk. We also know that just quitting drug use is not a realistic option for everyone. Harm reduction strategies accept that drug use is part of our world and provide effective tools to reduce the harmful effects that drug use can have, such as viral hepatitis, HIV and overdose. HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B can be transmitted when people share injecting equipment, so syringe exchanges give people clean, unused works and dispose of people’s used ones. Methadone is a drug that can be prescribed and taken orally so that injection is avoided completely, and many people find they can keep their lives more manageable and healthy with methadone or another type of opiate maintenance therapy. In this issue of Solidarity Project, we explore ways that drug users around the world are organizing to protect themselves and their communities when society won’t.
Spectacular demonstrations took place on World AIDS Day 2006 in Teheran, Iran. More than 800 people visited Persepolis’ programme for reducing HIV among drug injectors.
At the 18th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm in Warsaw, Poland in May, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) announced that about a third of people who contract HIV worldwide outside of Africa are exposed through shared syringes during injection drug use or indirectly as sexual partners of people infected through shared syringes. The trend is similar in the United States, where these risk factors account for almost two-thirds of cumulative AIDS cases among women.
Between 50-90%, of active and former injection drug users in the U.S. have hepatitis C (HCV), with most users becoming infected within the first years of beginning to inject. In Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, injection drug use is a primary mode of transmission for both HIV and HCV. Yet only 8% of injection drug users worldwide have access to prevention services like opiate maintenance treatment and sterile syringes, according to UNAIDS.
The U.S.-led global “War on Drugs”—which puts drug users in the hands of police and prisons instead of serving users’ physical and mental health, housing, and recovery needs—increases the risk of contracting HIV and viral hepatitis, as well as the risk of overdose. Stijn Goossens, Director of Activism for the newly formed International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) cites an example from his home, Antwerp, Belgium, to demonstrate the absurdity of making particular drugs illegal: “Antwerp jails are full of Moroccans in for the hash trade. How come they’re not full of Scottish people in for the whiskey trade?” Of course, Goossens and INPUD would oppose the incarceration of alcohol vendors from any country, but his point is clear.
Even before the emergence of HIV, drug users organized to provide services for their communities and to defend their human rights. Those who are directly affected by an issue must lead every struggle for justice—and this struggle is no different. As with any movement, drug user organizing faces considerable challenges, but they can be overcome, especially with the logistical support of former and non-users.
A Movement Grows
Drug user organizing started in the Netherlands in the early 1970s to reduce the transmission of hepatitis B, and in 1984, a users’ group in Amsterdam began the first distribution of syringes to prevent HIV. The Drug User Organizing Manual, created by Jennifer Flynn for the Open Society Institute’s International Harm Reduction Development Program (IHRD), observes: “Heavily influenced by the AIDS movement, drug user organizing carries forward The Denver Principles, which rejects victimization and creates a new identity that individuals can call themselves, rather than being given a label by the outside world.” Continue reading