How cultural attitudes, the political environment, and donor expectations shape harm reduction – and how they can divert it from its original mission as a movement.

We have been producing movies about drug policies since 2007. Through all these years, we have been traveling a lot across the world, visiting harm reduction sites and interviewing hundreds of harm reduction activists, professionals, and decision makers in various countries.

It is easy to make premature judgments about harm reduction in a country. I always have my own preconception about it before actually traveling there, based on articles and reports I have read. Most of the time, I have to admit that the reality is much more complex than my expectations. My experience tells me that sometimes countries labelled as retrograde in terms of drug policy and harm reduction can amaze you with vivid, vibrant local harm reduction scenes. And countries praised for their progressive drug policies can equally disappoint you with their rigid, medicalised systems.

Sometimes you learn the most cutting edge lessons about harm reduction and human rights among the people living in disadvantaged countries. A mistake often made is that the experience of these people is underestimated, and only success stories are highlighted and celebrated by reports from international organisations. Exchanging experiences and knowledge among decision makers and harm reduction professionals working in similar, difficult environments is often as useful as presenting best practices from Western countries. Lack of measurable success in changing policies is not necessarily a sign of the failure of advocacy efforts.

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Thumbnail: Drug Reporter / Harm Reduction Coalition