Community alternatives to the war on drugs: Community advocacy for harm reduction

Community alternatives to the war on drugs: Community advocacy for harm reduction

I and many people who use drugs in Bac Giang in Vietnam have been very much looking forward to the launch of Cao Thuong voluntary community treatment centre. Health workers here are very committed and friendly. Coming here, people who use drugs are not afraid; they can be very open and frank in asking for help.

Nguyen Thi Huong

CONTEXT

An estimated 3–5 million people who inject drugs live in Asia. People who inject drugs are globally 28 times more likely to contract HIV than the general population. Unsafe injecting drug use is a major driver of the HIV epidemic in many Asian countries. Harm reduction refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs. Although harm reduction is becoming increasingly accepted across Asia, the key problem is that a largely punitive policy and legal environment remains firmly in place.

OBJECTIVES

  • To contribute to improving the policy environment around drug use and HIV/AIDS in the 6 Asian countries.
  • To achieve an increased commitment by governments to evidence based and rights based policy on drug use and HIV/AIDS.

RESULTS

  • In May 2015, the first community-based voluntary treatment site for people with drug addiction in Vietnam opened. This marks a new era for drug addiction treatment in Vietnam when voluntary, evidence-based, community-based treatment is growing, pushing compulsory institutionalised rehabilitation to close.
  • Innovative models of co-operation with the police were developed in Cambodia, China, India and Malaysia. In China, 112 people who use drugs were referred to voluntary-community based treatment by policemen.
  • The ‘Support. Don’t Punish’ campaign disseminated positive messages about people who use drugs in 48 countries.

FACTS AND FIGURES

  • EC contribution: €2 343 174 (75% of the total)
  • The project is working in six countries in Asia - China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and India
  • Voluntary community based treatment pilots enabled 200 people who inject drugs in China and Indonesia to stay in the community while getting the treatment.

TESTIMONY

A dream come true - a testimony from Vietnam

My name is Nguyen Thi Huong. I am 32 years old. I started using heroin 11 years ago. My family and I were very ashamed because of this. There was no help, only the compulsory centre and the fear of being arrested and sent there. I felt hopeless. I tried to quit and it took me 15 rounds of detox to finally do it. It was a very painful time.  And even after I quit, the shame of being a drug user continued to haunt me. In early 2014 I was approached by a friend who also had drug use experience. He invited me to join Bac Giang Faith – a drug user group which is supported by the Asia Action on Harm Reduction project.

My experience of drug use is useful to others. Now I help people who use drugs to prevent HIV, hepatitis C and overdose by sharing with them my knowledge and experience. I encourage them to enroll in HIV testing and treatment programmes. I visit the families. They trust me. Many people need treatment for their addiction and everybody is afraid of compulsory centre.

We also participate in many workshops and trainings and interact with member of our community, even with the judges. I remember a Chief Judge of a district shared with us,‘for 18 years I have been member of a committee that sends people who use drugs to compulsory centres. I can say for every 10 people we sent, 11 came back and started to use drugs again. We can't continue like that. We have to change and develop a more effective treatment system". He got a big applause from participants of the training. I could not believe my ears. I used to be so afraid of people like him.

It was hard to imagine that one day people suffering from drug addiction, like myself, can come openly to the health centre and get help. It is like a dream come true.