Reflections on the North Carolina Conference on Drug Use

Reducing Harm and Building Communities: Addressing Drug Use in the South

On September 8th and 9th, 2011, around 200 people from all corners of the South converged in Durham, NC for the first conference to discuss issues surrounding drug use, sex work and harm reduction in their communities. The attendees represented many groups including representatives of the military, law enforcement, Republicans and Democrats the North Carolina House of Representatives, outreach workers, health professionals, academics, sex workers, people of transgender experience and drug users.

The conference kicked off with a blessing from Rev Dr. Tamsey Philips Hill, a chaplain at Duke University Hospital and a staff member of Partners in Care of the Carolinas. Deon Haywood of New Orleans’ Women with a Vision and Robert Childs of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition led an overview of the conference.

Rep. Verla Insko (D-56) touched upon her experience as a health program administrator at the University of North Carolina as she spoke about the need for more harm reduction practices in North Carolina and throughout the South. Rep. Glen Bradley (R-49), an admirer of Fredrick Douglass’ vision of the Constitution, then spoke about the need for political advocacy for syringe decriminalization and the lack of effectiveness of the war on drugs. Daniel Raymond, the Policy Director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, then gave an eloquent overview of harm reduction. Daniel spoke about those that touted the idea “if they [drug users] don’t want to get HIV, it’s just that simple – stop using drugs.” Noting their ignorance of drug use, he pointed out the true meaning: “If you are using drugs, you’re life isn’t worth saving.” Harm reduction, in effect, shows people, “[r]ight here, right now, your life is worth saving.”

Several testimonials followed. Perry Parks, a Vietnam War veteran, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and current President of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients’ Network, recounted his experiences with chronic pain and pain management through the use of cannabis, and his subsequent loss of his hard-won military reputation. Bob Scott, a former captain of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office in Franklin, NC, described his experiences with the war on drugs in rural North Carolina. Patrick Packer of the Southern AIDS Coalition, testified to the lack of attention and services given to Southerners living with HIV/AIDS. Leigh Maddox, a retired captain of the Maryland State Police and current Special Assistant State’s Attorney for the State of Maryland, gave a deeply personal testimonial on how her own personal and professional losses to the war on drugs fueled her advocacy to view substance abuse as a health problem and her anti-prohibition stance. In addition, Human Rights Watch released an in-depth report on the status of human rights and HIV in the Southern United States, which will be released on their website soon.

Video of the opening session of the conference can be found at http://www.twitvid.com/RM50Z compliments of Richard Cassidy.

This provided an inspiring platform for the rest of conference. The panels ranged from building alliances with law enforcement and faith-based communities to fundraising and program implementation to the rising use of crack cocaine and prescription drugs in the South. Prof. Sam MacMaster of the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work highlighted the high prevalence of crack cocaine use in the South and how it intersects with HIV/AIDS. The conference provided, not just a learning experience, but also as a place to meet others in the South that are working on the same issues. Many participants are from organizations that are not based in the hubs of Atlanta, New Orleans, Durham or DC and often do not meet others in the field. As one participant pointed out, “Finally, I do not feel alone.”