"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"
- Martin Luther King
We're just past mid-way through the 9th National Harm Reduction Conference in Portland, Oregon. The theme of this year's conference is From Public Health to Social Justice, and reflects the broad themes presented by conference participants, including engaging and organizing drug users for social change, how to be most effective in implementing harm reduction methods, and support for marginalized people with housing and other services.
There are maybe 500 people here from all areas of the United States, Canada, and other parts of the world, including Brazil and Russia. The Canadian delegates hail from Vancouver, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and New Foundland. In fact, yesterday evening, the Canadian delegates met and shared our experiences with our work. Edmonton's Street Works, a harm reduction outreach organization, has a large contingency at the conference.
The conference opened Thursday morning with a rousing welcome and a plenary session that included Vancouver's own NAOMI Patients Association represented by Pivot Director, Dave Murray, Dianne Tobin of VANDU, and UVic researcher Susan Boyd. This session was conducted via Skype though, due to restrictive travel laws that prohibit drug users from entering the US.
There have been several interesting breakout sessions so far, including several focused on overdose prevention and Good Samaritan laws that are being enacted in different states. These laws make it so that a person using drugs can safely call for emergency services for someone overdosing without the threat of being charged for an offence. It is high time that such a law was enacted in Canada, as many are afraid to call 911 for fear of prosecution.
I moderated an educational session Thursday on Involvement in Criminal Justice Systems that featured Tara Lyons from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS discussing her research on Drug Treatment Courts in Canada.
On Friday, I moderated another session, this time on Drug User Organizing. This session featured Bobby Tolbert and Elizabeth Owens, both of VOCAL-NY Users Union, based in Brooklyn, NY. VOCAL has been instrumental in using grass-roots drug-user activism to change drug policy around the legality of carrying needles and New York's Good Samaritan law. VOCAL-NY began in 2006 as an organization advocating for housing for people with HIV/AIDS in New York and evolved to also advocate for drug policy reform, and rights for prisoners and parolees. Their work recognizes the important intersection with these issues and housing, healthcare, income support and jobs.
On Saturday, the conference continues for its third day. I will be presenting on a panel entitled, "Canadian Social Justice Organizing". On this panel with me will be Pivot Director, Donald MacPherson, who heads up the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Walter Cavalieri of the Canadian Harm Reduction Network, Zoe Dodd, of South Riverdale Community Medical Centre, and Joan Ruzsa, of Rittenhouse. Our topics will cover the current issues in Canada around harm reduction, including access to healthcare such as methadone, heroin assisted therapy and clean needles, and drug policy questions about how illegal drugs are regulated.
All in all, this has been a great opportunity to learn more about different approaches to harm reduction being taken and to meet some enthusiastic and passionate advocates for sensible drug policy.