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Harm Reduction 2008: Harm Reduction International’s 19th International Conference took place from 11th – 15th May 2008 in Barcelona, Spain. The conference was, once again, very successful - attracting 1,280 people from around 80 different countries around the world. Amongst the delegates were senior UN officials, national and international policy makers, leading drug user activists, front-line workers and researchers. In total, there were around 70 sessions over five days, covering a range of different topics – in keeping with the conference theme, ‘Towards a Global Approach’. Overall, there were 250 presentations and 300 poster exhibits.

On Sunday 11th May, the conference was opened with a keynote address by Professor Paul Hunt (the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to the Health), who delivered a strong statement on harm reduction and human rights and described the lack of regard for human rights in the international drug control system as ‘bizarre’ and ‘inexcusable’. He concluded his speech by urging harm reduction, drug policy advocates and drug user activists to incorporate UN human rights mechanisms and monitors into their work.

Monday 12th May began with the first ‘Plenary Session’, which aimed to present the ‘Global State of Harm Reduction’ (with speakers from Africa, Australia, Europe, and Latin America), introduce some of the general themes for the conference, and launch Harm Reduction International’s ‘Global State of Harm Reduction’ report. This session was followed by three ‘Major Sessions’ covering harm reduction in Spain, hepatitis C, and harm reduction research. After lunch, there was a high profile ‘Double Concurrent Session’ in the afternoon on ‘Universal Access to HIV Prevention and Treatment for Drug Users’, which was supported by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The afternoon programme also included sessions on cannabis, prisons, substitution treatment, advocacy, and research on HIV risks. There was also a lively early-evening session debating the evidence behind ‘Ibogaine’ as a drug treatment.

Tuesday 13th May opened with a multi-media ‘Plenary Session’ on gender issues in harm reduction, which incorporated video footage with questions to a panel of speakers from around the world. This was followed by ‘Major Sessions’ on gender barriers, alcohol harm reduction, and ‘Discrimination Versus Rights’ (a ‘Users Choice’ session organised by INPUD). The afternoon programme included a lunchtime session on tuberculosis and HIV (supported by the World Health Organization, UNAIDS and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), ‘Concurrent Sessions’ on young people, overdose prevention, alcohol, tobacco and research on drug use prevalence, and an early evening session on drug consumption rooms around the world.

On Wednesday 14th May, there was a ‘Plenary Session’ and a ‘Major Session’ on human rights and harm reduction. The rest of the day’s programme included sessions on hidden harms, stimulant drugs, engaging the police, prisons, antiretroviral treatments for injecting drug users, ethno-epidemiology and tobacco. There were also two afternoon sessions on harm reduction and commercial sex work, highlighting peer-led best practice in this field and the harms of the prohibition of sex work.

The final day, Thursday 15th May, opened with a keynote address from Antonio Maria Costa (the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), who stated that health was the ‘first principle’ of the international drug conventions, and called for a focus on harm reduction, health responses and human rights. This was followed by the final three ‘Major Sessions’ on nursing and harm reduction, crack cocaine, and harm reduction research, and the ‘Closing Session’ in which Harm Reduction International Awards were presented.

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