Nearly a thousand people gathered in Oakland, CA last Sept. 17-21 for the First National Harm Reduction Conference, organized by the Harm Reduction Coalition. Persons involved in syringe exchange, drug abuse counseling, policy analysts and activists joined to meet each other, exchange information and ideas, and rally together to move harm reduction forward. Harm reduction is a set of public health strategies aimed at helping drug users reduce the harm they do to themselves and others, and is based on a philosophy of compassion and respect for individual autonomy. But it is also a grassroots movement of community activists working to change oppressive and destructive policies and attitudes; it is a revolt against the war on drugs.
Two of the welcoming speakers offered contrasting views -- equally valid and necessary -- on what attendees should take away from the meeting. David Purchase, founder of the North American Syringe Exchange Network and one of the first people to do needle exchange in the US, said that people should enjoy what they are doing. "Harm reduction is fun." Cheryl Simmons, a counselor who works with African American women in prisons, urged attendees to take an attitude of urgency toward their work. While we are free to go to conferences, her people are being consumed by the criminal justice system, and it is urgent the nation be steered toward a better course.
Plenary sessions during the conference included The Political Environment Within and Surrounding Harm Reduction, Substance Use Management, Methadone and Drug Treatment, Occupational Health, Creating Effective Therapeutic Relationships between Mental Health Providers and Substance Users, Health and Medical Services as Social Justice, and Community Organizing. There were over 60 breakout sessions and workshops, with hundreds of presenters.
One of the moving exhibits at the conference was presented by the Chicago Recovery Alliance, in memory of CRA founding member John Szyler, author of CRA's motto, Any Positive Change. The exhibit included photographs and enlarged printouts of some of John's e-mail correspondence. Another powerful exhibit was Human Rights '95: Atrocities of the Drug War, a photo essay telling the stories of some of the many victims of the drug war.
For information on the Harm Reduction Coalition, contact HRC, 3223 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, CA 94610, (510) 444-6969 (voice), (510) 444-6977 (fax).
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