Every two years, the leaders and the soldiers in the fight for sane and sensible drug policy gather together for three days of learning, laughing, sharing, and sometimes crying. At the 11th National Harm Reduction Conference, people from all wings of the movement – needle exchange pioneers, treatment professionals, activists, and families who have fought a drug war in their own homes – join forces.
It was my first Harm Reduction Conference, yet I felt I was among friends. Meeting FSDP Co-founder Carol Katz Beyer for the first time was like hugging a family member I hadn’t seen in years. No one has to ask each other why they’re there – we all share a bond of feeling, very personally, the wreckage of the drug war and the impact it has had on those we love.
The FSDP booth in the Exhibition Hall was buzzing. We met AIDS educators, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) members, needle exchange pioneers from states where needle exchange is still illegal, and marijuana legalization advocates. I was especially excited with Jeannie Little, co-author of Over the Influence and one of my personal heroines, came by the table. The heroes of harm reduction – people whose books decorate my coffee table and serve as references in my masters’ thesis – are so warm and accessible, happy to chat with a newbie and share a hug.
Many of our members presented or spoke on panels:
“Missed Opportunities for Intervention in Correctional Facilities: Barriers to Harm Reduction Interventions and Solutions for Change”– Dale Schafer, FDSP Legal Advocate and Sentencing Reform Specialist, and Julie Apperson, FSDP Correctional Health Reform Advocate.
“Nine Stories: The Experience of LGBT Individuals in 12 Step Rehab”– April Wilson Smith, FSDP Harm Reduction Epidemiologist
“Red State Harm Reduction: Naloxone, Medical Amnesty and Drug Policy in the Bible Belt–Jeremy Galloway, FSDP Harm Reduction Coordinator
One of the highlights of the conference was the panel on Health and Correctional issues, where FSDP Legal Advisor and Sentencing Reform Specialist Dale C. Schafer and FSDP Corrections Health Reform Advocate Julie Apperson spoke (pictured at right). Dale talked about his experience spending 52 months in prison for growing a small amount of marijuana. It was hard to believe that such a distinguished attorney had actually spent time behind bars, and for nothing more than growing a medicinal plant to give to some friends who were sick.
Julie spoke about her work to reform the prison health system, where inmates are routinely denied needed services. Medication is used as a weapon by guards who can arbitrarily deny inmates access to needed pills. Psychiatric care is almost impossible to get, and even if a patient has insurance on the outside, they are not able to use that insurance to pay for needed care on the inside. Julie’s passion for reforming prison health services led her to change her nursing career and go into the difficult world of behavioral health. Her own son is currently in a correctional facility, and she fights for the rights of people like him every day.
The Harm Reduction Conference was such a big event that one post couldn’t hope to cover it, but one thing was clear: Families for Sensible Drug Policy is an internationally recognized voice for the families who have been affected by the senseless drug war. Everywhere we went, leaders in the movement recognized us and sought us out. We contribute a unique perspective to the conversation on drug policy – a conversation that all too often leaves our voices out.
Being a part of team FSDP at the Harm Reduction Conference left me energized and ready to take on the fight! Hope to see you there next time!
— April Wilson Smith, FSDP Harm Reduction Epidemiologist