Drug Users Welcomed For First Time at Global AIDS Confab

By McCarton Ackerman 07/25/14

After being shut out of of the AIDS conference for decades, intravenous drug users finally had their own booth.

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After decades of being left out, intravenous drug users had their voices heard last week at the 20th annual International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

A small group of drug users were permitted to enter the conference this year and a small booth in the conference hall had a sign which read: “People Who Use Drugs.” One of the participants at the booth, a heroin user named Ruth, said the medical community needed to be more inclusive with drug users and not flatly condemn them.

“I think it’s becoming more and more difficult for the international HIV and AIDS community to exclude drug users,” she said. “If we’re going to tackle this epidemic, we need to be looking at the environments that allow HIV to flourish, and certainly criminalization of both sex work and drug use are the best friends of HIV.”

Susie McLean, a senior adviser on HIV and drug use at the International HIV/AIDS Alliances, said that 30% of all new HIV infections worldwide come from intravenous drug users if you exclude sub-Saharan Africa. “They’re not a marginal group in terms of the HIV dynamics. They’re a primary group,” she said. “We think that a lot of the problem that goes on in public policy is what I tend to call 'othering'—in which we say that people who use drugs are other people over there, and that they’re bad.”

The World Health Organization has publicly supported naloxone, a drug that can quickly reverse the effects of heroin and methadone overdoses. But despite this, Ruth believes that drug users are still marginalized or outright removed from discussions about their health and elevated risk of obtaining HIV.

“People who use drugs aren’t aliens. They aren’t bent on self-destruction or interested in punching your grandmother for her TV,” she said. “We’re just all making our way in this world as best we can, and some people find that drugs help them do that, and some people don’t. And I really don’t think it should be the business of those who don’t to mess with the business of those who do.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.