The Harm Reduction International Conference 2019 (HR19) has begun in Porto, with several influential speakers delivering inspiring and poignant remarks at the opening ceremony.

HR19 comes at a crucial moment in the development of drug policies across the globe. Many countries find themselves at a drug policy crossroads; do they pursue health and human rights-oriented approaches that reduce potential drug harms, or maintain policies of criminalisation and repression that have long-characterised the global drug war?

1. Failed drug policies continue to kill millions around the world.

Harm Reduction International’s executive director, Naomi Burke-Shyne, began the opening ceremony by displaying a moving memorial to honour the lives of those lost to failed drug policies.

“The end of any life brings sadness,” Burke-Shyne noted, “but when it is so unnecessary – these deaths are preventable, and caused by stigma and unjust drug laws – words cannot properly capture the heartbreak and anger”.

Not only are these needless deaths widespread, impacting communities in every corner of the world, they are on the rise. The number of drug-related deaths worldwide soared by 60 per cent during the first 15 years of this century, with a staggering 450,000 such deaths in 2015 alone.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, described to the audience how the drug war is “driven by the idea that crackdowns on people who use drugs – or who are involved in the trade of drugs – will make drug use go away”, but that instead, “repressive policies have actually impeded” the development of approaches that could reduce drug-related harms and deaths.