Da: “The Senlis Council” A Fourth International Convention for Drug Policy – Roma, February 2005
Dr. Massimo Barra, Founder and Director in Chief, Villa Maraini Foundation, Italian Red Cross, Italy

This series of drug policy papers is an important, rational step in the right direction. It is with contributions of this kind that the debate on the reduction of the harms associated with drug misuse will move from ideology and fear, to a more rational and compassionate ground. The author proposes to establish the international legal foundations for the promotion of innovative public health responses that have been developed around the world to address drug related problems.

This is in reaction to the fact that, in the 21st century, life-saving treatment and prevention measures such as clean needle exchange and drug prescription are still not given a firm international legal backing despite their proven effectiveness. This publication is a reminder that the real benchmark of any international drug policy is and should always be preventing death and suffering as well as preserving human dignity. In Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe, high risk injection drug use is the main factor contributing to HIV/AIDS epidemics.

Not only the health but also the security and economic development of entire regions are under threat, and basic health measures are denied the legal and political support they deserve. ‘Spreading the light of science and the warmth of human sympathy’ were the words used in Paris in 1919 by the founders of the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Under this slogan, the Movement, which I have been involved with since the age of eight, has always directed its action in favour of vulnerable people, particularly in the most obscure, stigmatised corners of our society, where sadly, drug users are often forced to live.

‘Spreading the light of science’ is the title of the 2003 report of the Red Cross on HIV/AIDS and Harm Reduction, which ensures that a wide range of prevention programmes, including access to sterile injecting equipment, are implemented throughout the world. Reducing harm and preventing death is a universal cause the Red Cross intends to pursue relentlessly.

It achieves this through scientific evidence and by taking inspiration from the fundamental principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. But science alone cannot provide the whole answer. The drug problem is not only a matter of changing people’s minds, it is also a question of reaching their hearts. It is my belief that harm reduction programs are vital instruments of human compassion that encourage the social and physical well-being of drug users.

I regard it as my duty to bring together individuals and organisations to advocate for the implementation of these programs. Drug use is a complex and tortuous phenomenon. By associating science with compassion, I believe that the international community can make a difference, particularly to the most vulnerable groups. Since founding one of the first drug user care centres in Italy thirty years ago, I have met more than 30,000 users. If I have learned anything, it is that stigmatisation and lack of care for drug victims is unwise and destructive, not only for the users themselves but for the communities in which they live. The scientific and legal instruments for harm reduction policies are within our grasp; it is now only a matter of strengthening the international community’s will to implement these policies.

In 2008 the United Nations will review its drug policy commitments made in 1998. This will be the opportunity to make new choices and to ground drug policy on humanitarian principles for the dignity of drug users and for the benefit of the global community.