WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 May 2011 | Commentary

WOLA/TNI Expert Workshop on Supply-Oriented Harm Reduction

The Expert Workshop on Supply-Oriented Harm Reduction, co-hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI), took place on May 10, 2011, in Washington, D.C. The workshop was intended to provide a space for an open-minded exchange among experts from a variety of disciplines and countries. Funded by the Open Society Foundations, it brought together a small group of academics and NGO experts from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the United States, and the Netherlands to explore the application of harm reduction strategies to supply-side drug control efforts. John Walsh (WOLA) was the principle organizer of the event; Eric Olson served as facilitator and Coletta Youngers as rapporteur.

The long-running war on drugs is coming under increasing criticism, with debates underway in many quarters over how to make the global drug control system more “fit for purpose” of promoting human welfare. Interventions and policies aiming to reduce the health, social, and economic harms of drug use have become prominent in many countries in recent years. By comparison, consideration of how a harm reduction approach might be applied to supply-oriented challenges is relatively new.

The need for fresh approaches is clear enough. For mass-market drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and cannabis, traditional enforcement-led policies appear virtually powerless to achieve their aims. At the same time, traditional policies fail to address—and may  exacerbate—problems such as violence and citizen insecurity, corruption, human rights abuses, and escalating incarceration rates.

The workshop sought to address the question: Can the concept of harm reduction, broadly construed, be applied to supply-oriented challenges to better address the harms associated with illicit drug production and distribution, but also minimize the harms that stem from drug control itself? Workshop organizers started from the premise that serious consideration of harm reduction’s potential can inform the growing debate and help identify promising alternatives to the drug war status quo.

The facilitated discussion was organized around three major topics—research, policy, and networks—with each session initiated by brief remarks to frame the issues and stimulate debate. Relevant articles were circulated to all participants prior to the workshop to promote a more informed discussion. (The annex provides an updated list of suggested readings on the topic.) The discussion was held under Chatham House Rule to ensure confidentiality and allow for a free exchange of ideas. Hence, no individuals are quoted in this report. The report aims to present the ideas and discussions which took place at the workshop; it does not present consensus positions or endorsement by those participating.

The workshop was intended to be the beginning of a collaborative effort to harness the potential of supply-oriented harm reduction. These proceedings are intended to help provide a foundation upon which future discussions and debate can be built.

To read the entire rapporteur's report, please click here.

Photo courtesy of Kristin Miranda, via Flickr.