Report from Stockholm by Erin O’Mara.
Landed in Stockholm today in time for the Swedish Users Unions annual conference.
Despite being mentally absorbed in the preparations for the upcoming UNAID’s meeting in Geneva -where INPUD for the first time as an organisation, is having a role to play in the development of UN policy and guidance around HIV prevention and IV drug use –more later), the goings on in Sweden brought me back to earth with a thump.
The irony is bittersweet. The United Nations, along with forward thinking governments and international NGOs are progressively accepting the role people who use drugs have to play in the issues that affect their lives and next week drug users will be walking in the doors of the UN. But such is the schitzophrenic nature of the drugs discourse – on the ground so many are still fighting just to have a voice. For our comrades in Sweden, even user activists who attend such international meetings are treated unacceptably at home, locked into the punitive treatment protocols of archaic methadone clinics and their supervised urine tests.
Over the next few days here there will be much to talk about and report. I’m staying in the bosom of the international user family (thanks to Kicki and Berne) and look forward to hearing more and reporting back to you about the extraordinary work the union is doing – they have made astounding progress in a envirnoment hostile to change. I hope to try and uncover what it is in the Swedish culture that creates such an inflexible attitude to drug use; because this puritanical moralism behind the Swedish drug laws is destroying their young people as blood borne viruses and criminal records claim more futures.
Over coffee, bread and cheese, we talked drug treatment. I was dismayed at the punitive appraoch to drug treatment and the unbridled power of the treatment centres here.
But what disturbed me even more was that with every story I heard, I knew that almost every person who is in treatment across the globe would be familiar with the very frustration, depression, and powerlessless our Swedish peers are experiencing and I’m sure many reading this would feel a solidarity with them.
The stories I heard were many. From the guy who shot and killed himself in front of clinic staff after they stopped his script after 18 years because he didnt come into the clinic for a week having met a woman, to the clinics who expect you to attend every morning of the week for an hour (maybe 2) for script collection which effectively precludes those who are employed from attending; To the woman who wasn’t allowed to have her choice of midwife when pregnant, to those who are denied or lose their housing and benefits if they test positive for drugs.
Needless to say the User Union is busy. A major topic for discussion at Tuesdays conference will be the HCV infection rates of over 90% in the using community. This is compounded by a law that forbids pharmacies to sell a sterile syringe to a ‘drug user’, regulations and bureacracy that make it almost impossible for communities to set up needle exchange (leaving only 2 centres in the entire Sweden providing it), and the User Union itself, struggling to meet its communites needs by handing out sterile needles and syringes provided by an anoymous donor from outside of Sweden.
However, as Kicki from the Union said, they will progress. They have right on their side after all. . The evidence is in and it is overwhelming. Harm reduction does work – and it is a case of countries like Sweden realising that to avoid implementing harm reduction puts them squarely out of step with global HIVand HCV prevention orthadoxy – an issue that is leaving Sweden with blood on its’ hands.