After eleven years at Harm Reduction International, eight of them as Executive Director, I will be stepping down at the end of August.
This year marks my 25th anniversary working in harm reduction. I first started in 1993, at a tiny AIDS service organisation in Toronto providing HIV services to people in prison. Our job was to fight the system to get people access to meds, to outside HIV specialists, to early release and for wider policy change such as provision of needle exchange and OST. It would be several years before I first heard the term ‘harm reduction’, or learned that the philosophy we followed in our work was part of a growing global movement for health and justice. Little did I imagine that one day I would have the opportunity to work for, let alone lead, an organisation like Harm Reduction International. At the same time, little did I imagine that so many of the injustices we were fighting against 25 years ago would remain unresolved today.
While debates about the ‘definition of harm reduction’ continue to cause conflict within many UN settings, the harm reduction approach for me was always easy to understand: treating people with dignity and respect; valuing the lived experience of peers; believing no one should have their lives or health put at risk – or go to prison – simply because of the drugs they chose to use; fighting stigma and discrimination, and the laws and policies that drive them; recognising the pernicious relationship between drug laws and racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, colonisation and other societal evils.
The former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health (and longstanding HRI friend) Paul Hunt has described harm reduction as human rights put into practice, which I think is as good a definition as any.
My experience in those early years has driven my work at Harm Reduction International, and played a huge role in the trajectory of our development over the last eleven years. I am incredibly proud of the work we have achieved together over that time, innovative work that in many cases has shifted the way our sector thinks about our issues, and how we engage with others.
HRI’s ground-breaking work on the death penalty for drugs offences; our pioneering use of international human rights law and UN human rights mechanisms as engines for harm reduction advocacy; our ongoing mapping of the Global State of Harm Reduction; our monitoring of international and national financial support for harm reduction; our work on harm reduction in prisons; all of the incredible HRI conferences; and much more. It’s a legacy of work all of us at HRI can be proud of, and none of it would have been possible without the great team of people I have worked with over the last decade. I want to thank all my dedicated co-workers, our Board members, our donors, our partners and the many many people in our amazing international harm reduction family for making my time at HRI so enjoyable and inspiring.
In September, I will take up an appointment as Associate Professor of Criminology and Human Rights in the School of Law at Swansea University in Wales, where I will continue to pursue my long term goal of mainstreaming drug control into wider human rights advocacy, and fostering the development of new generations of human rights activists and lawyers dedicated to our cause.
Our Board will oversee the implementation of our leadership transition plan, commencing in June 2018, details of which will follow on our website.
While leading HRI has been an immense privilege, I believe that part of good leadership is knowing when it’s time to step aside and make space for the next generation of leadership to emerge. I will watch that process with excitement and anticipation.
Hope to see you all in Porto for HR19!