Written by Eliza Kurcevič.

The 26th Harm Reduction International Conference (HR19) took place in Porto, Portugal on April 28-May 1. It’s the biggest harm reduction conference in the world and this year it gathered record number of participants – more than 1200 delegates, from more than 90 countries. This year the conference theme was “People before Politics”, which tried to emphasize that first we need to prioritize people, their health, human rights and dignity, and only after all this – we can speak about politics and its ideologies.

This year, the conference had many spaces and activities for the networking, discussions, including: Community Hub, Gallery, Medical and Harm Reduction services, posters area, workshops, exhibition area, side meetings, site visits to Harm Reduction services, film festival and most important – sessions.

Youth RISE together with YODA and SSDP had a side meeting “Empowering Youth: networking, funding, participating”. This meeting brought together youth activists from around the world to discuss the lack of youth participation in formulating drug policies. What is more, during the meeting three organizations had a possibility to present their activities, projects and also barriers, which they face in their work.

What is more, Youth RISE member Joana Canedo participated in the session “The Kids are Alright: Harm Reduction and Youth”, where she presented “YPWUD and Law Enforcement interactions – drugs are not born in trees or sent to parties with the force of a Jedi”. Joana presented that despite the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal, the number of infractions and arrests increased there and that young people are stigmatized, discriminated and socially excluded, which means, that legalization and regulation are urgently needed to end the above mentioned negative consequences.

Overall, this year, HR19 covered countless topics, which were presented by different stakeholders: community and NGOs members, activists, politicians, scientists and scholars, international organizations representatives, and many more participants.

During the opening ceremony, the mayor of Porto stated, that Porto municipality will support the opening of the mobile consumption rooms. As a keynote speaker, Michelle Bachelet – United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized, that Member states should rebalannce drug policies towards a public health approach.

On the first day, the workshop “Reagent drug checking as an underground harm reduction practice” was presented by Mitchell Gomez, who is an Executive director of Dance Safe. Mitchell spoken about reagent tests and the importance to use it during festivals, events. While we should try to change and advocate for laws allowing laboratory analysis of substances in our countries, we cannot wait for the changes and need to save lives of the people through the basic reagent checking. In their work, Dance Safe is also distributing free water, non-biased drug education, earplugs, condoms and appropriate harm reduction messaging. What is more, this year for the first time, Dance Safe were distributing Narcan, for the overdose prevention.

The session “Fast-track stimulants” brought a discussion on the harm reduction services for the stimulant users. Rafaela Rigoni presented the set of the best harm reduction practices for people who use stimulants. You can find more information on this here.

After, Raquel Rebelo (from Portugal), Ernesto Cortes (Costa Rica) and Murtaza Majeed (Afghanistan) presented national harm reduction approaches for the stimulants users, which include: crack pipes distribution in Porto, kits for safer use (including lip balm, etc.) distribution in Latin America countries, mobile drop-in centre services in Afghanistan. One of the key issues they emphasized was the lack of funding for the harm reduction services. For example in Afghanistan, approximately 1000 people are arriving to the mobile drop-in center, but there is only capacity for 25 people to get access to harm reduction services. This shows a very extreme funding situation, which is already leading to devastating health issues.

Another session on drug checking “Drug checking: past, present and future innovations” presented existing practices in different regions of the world.  Netherlands, France, Canada, Ukraine and Colombia showed how they started and developed drug checking in their countries and which barriers they faced or are facing in providing drug checking. Most of the speakers expressed great concern at the current dangers related to ecstacy or MDMA use.

On the last day of the conference the session “Decriminalization in Action” showed the importance of rethink the drug policies. Portuguese colleagues (Rui Combra Morais and Marta Pinto) showed that even though the Portuguese decriminalization model brought many good changes into the country, it still needs to be improved and discussion about the regulation should be started. Sandy Mteirek from Lebanon presented the Lebanese case: since 1998 treatment as an alternative to prosecution has been possible, but usually police decide not to use this route. Instead, it is generally only when the case reaches the courts that the case is potentially referred to treatment. In 2018 the bill on legalization of cannabis was presented to the society. But the bill itself “legalizes” cannabis cultivation only for export. So it means, that Lebanese people can grow the cannabis for other states, but not for their own use. Scott Bernstein from Canada presented the Regulation project in Canada, organized by 6 Canadian organizations. Scott noted, that drug policy models often miss the “consumer preference”, which is part of the public health approach.

One more session “Innovative Harm Reduction Approaches” showed new approaches of harm reduction, which we can use to reach people through the different ways: by post (HaRePo project in France), through the darknet (Israel, Russia), through the online counselling and during music festivals (Ukraine).

Last, but really not least – Feminist space for women who use drugs was created and organized by Metzineres (Spain) and C.A.S.O. women, together with #Narcofeminists and #Femdrug movements. During all the conference the safe space for women and non-conforming gender people who use drugs was open within an intersectional feminist perspective.