The last and final workshop of the series was based in Budapest, and yes this post is almost 3 weeks late, but better late than never!

We were all staying on a boat on the great Danube, a lovely scene to start off the workshop! We begun with learning about specialist harm reduction for psychedelics. We had the chance to discuss how harm reduction worked in practice from each of our country contexts and best practices outlined by the years of experience from the teams the presenter had worked with. There is very little information about psychedelic harm reduction, particularly in the medical field where most medics barely get any drugs training anyway. It was interesting to note how medical teams provided at these events would be so keen to tranquilize the participants with heavy sedatives and anti-psychotics which would actually potentially be more damaging because of unknown interactions and side effects. Always its best to leave it to the harm reduction specialists who know that people who experience the more intense trips are best treated with some empathy, sober and professional conduct, and to be supervised in a safe and secure location with access to water. This was a good insight so we could put this knowledge into practice this weekend.

The second day of the workshop included a lot of media training! All the group work we participated in really helped members to understand how to best use media to advocate for our cause. Media is very tricky and dealing with the media is even more so, especially as we work in such a controversial area. No matter how much evidence and facts that have been released to show this work is based on health and human rights, and proven time and time again to categorically work as effective public health interventions, there is always a strong backlash from emotionally charged individuals and organisations. We were being taught by DrugReporter who have led and documented a number of successful campaigns utilising film to advocate to sensible drug policy and human rights. They even have a film about District 8 which can be viewed on their website. They have a number of great videos and taught us the importance of telling a good story and how if these stories of injustice can be spread and then put pressure on people in power to make a change.

Next day we began by getting an overview of the harm reduction situation, or progressive lack thereof, in Budapest. The presentation ‘How to double HCV prevalence among PWIDs’ was a familiar story. The 8th district in Budapest in notorious for its lack of resources and high density of marginalized people, particularly homeless, IDU’s, sex workers and a bright multicultural but economically deprived community. A Needle Exchange Point (NEP) had been set up and was doing very well in providing clean needles, and other support for the residents of this district. There were even special initiatives developed such as ‘change for chicks’ where female social workers would be available to cater for the specific needs of female clients. In particular, the Roma woman have certain difficulties in accessing healthcare and are often unable to speak freely or come out without their partners or guardian’s. The NEP provided a safe space for them to attend without any male accompaniment and be free to open up about the issues they faced and get the support they needed.

Overall the NEP had also led to a ‘clean up’ of dirty needles found in the parks and in the streets, where children may be unintentionally exposed, and extra harm reduction and therapeutic support available for the people in the area. Interestingly enough, from a documentary interviewing the community, it was the children and residents themselves who clearly understood that a safe place for the IDUs to inject, get clean needles, and dispose of old ones, would benefit the whole neighbourhood.

The NEP had been carefully collecting data to help monitor trends in substances that were used and new ones appearing on the streets of Budapest. This included a clear trend that could be correlated with policies that came out to control substances and how this led to an increase in unknown NPS injecting. Precious data also provided evidence that the NEP was working in bringing out these hidden populations and provided them with much needed services to improve their day to day lives. Unfortunately, as we all know the tale goes, an increase in popularity and effectiveness of the NEP led to a backlash from some more conservative community members and politicians and eventually the NEP was shut down. Data collected from NEP and other sources highlighted how the prevalence of hepatitis which had been stabilising and decreasing from the opening of the NEP, led to a dramatic increase since its closure. Surely from a lack of access to clean needles again leading to increased risk of spread of HCV and other illnesses. With no reliable data being collected now and difficulty not only reaching these at-risk groups but also providing them with access to health care and prevention, the true scale of this public health crisis is vastly underestimated.

Soon after we were given the overview of the situation in Budapest, we were led by a former worker of the NEP to the 8th District to see first-hand the locations where people used to inject before the NEP, how they were shut down during the time of the NEP, and how they became repopulated following its closure. In an area with so much vibrancy it’s disheartening to see how people are forced into such unsafe conditions again and becoming more hidden and isolated from vital services to improve their health and wellbeing.

We finally got to take a break and ready ourselves for action in the evening for our harm reduction work at a Halloween themed party. The party was great and we were able to learn first-hand exactly how to deal with the types of clients who access harm reduction services in this setting. It was a great opportunity to put what we learned into practice, particularly for those of us who are not as familiar with this specialist type of work. Although not all of our members would go out and be doing this work regularly, it’s important to have first-hand experience of this so that you can understand the working conditions and what is needed to provide a good service.

After a long weekend in beautiful Budapest we were certainly equipped with the knowledge and tools to take back to our home countries and share with our local networks. Harm Reduction and Media Advocacy FTW!

Learn more:

Workshop Budapest Group

(Thanks to Istvan Gabor Takacs for the pic)