Browsing Category: Syringe Access Fund

Atlanta Adds Southern Flavor to Harm Reduction

By Tessie Castillo, NC Harm Reduction Coalition

You know you’re in for a good time when a conference kicks off with an electric guitar performance. Last week Atlanta hosted the 2nd Annual Southern Harm Reduction conference, launched with a spirited song about jack shacks and brothels and sung by a former sex worker from Georgia…and it only got better from there. Throughout the three day conference, active and former sex workers and drugs users gathered with law enforcement, veterans, academics and community service providers to discuss hot button issues such as overdose prevention, safer crack use, mass incarceration, human trafficking, and drug policy. The event aimed to add southern flavor to harm reduction, a concept usually synonymous with government-funded syringe exchange programs in northern states. But while New York and Massachusetts might have a strong harm reduction presence, small nonprofits and activists from all over the south are quietly addressing issues such as syringe access, appalling rates of HIV and hepatitis, mass incarceration of minorities, violence against sex workers, and drug user stigma.

Take Atlanta for example. Syringe exchange is illegal in the state of Georgia, but Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC), who was one of the conference hosts hosted, has been providing life saving syringes to drug users and taking dirty needles off the streets for years. Rain, snow, sleet or hail, you’ll see Mona Bennett and her famous button hat offering HIV testing, referral to drug treatment, or a helping hand to people who use drugs.

Further up the coast, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition provides harm reduction based direct services and advocacy, as well as trains law enforcement officers on how to avoid accidental needle-sticks and works with them to advocate for saner drugs laws.  In addition, organizations like Project Lazarus have saved hundreds of lives through educating medical providers and the community about overdose prevention.

To the west, Streetworks in Nashville is educating drug users on how blood borne pathogens spread through crack and injection drug use and works to improve the lives of people who use drugs.

Dip down to New Orleans where Women with a Vision provides women and sex workers with empowerment tools for how to lead healthier lives and to serve as their own advocates. These organization are just a few of the many harm reduction programs working to save lives, reduce stigma, and make safer communities below the Mason-Dixon line.

There is a lot of harm reduction in the South, it’s just not as visible as elsewhere. Southern programs grapple with different challenges than northern states, such as greater stigma, fewer resources, and complex legal situations. Southern harm reduction isn’t big and flashy, but small groups of dedicated people are making a difference in every state. The conference in Atlanta was a chance to come together and to learn about what works from people who are doing it. It was a chance to realize, “hey, we’re not alone.” It was a chance to say, we don’t have to bring harm reduction to the south, because we’re already here.

What People Said About the Southern Harm Reduction Conference in Atlanta:

“This conference is a chance to grow harm reduction in the south. I love it because I feel like my neighbors are getting closer.”

– Mona Bennett, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“The incredible attendance for the conference speaks to the commitment in the south to be part of a harm reduction movement and to highlight the issues we face here, because they are unique.”

– Deon Haywood, Women with a Vision, New Orleans, LA

“As a law enforcement officer, I feel encouraged that people from various disciplines are willing to put their differences aside and come together to discuss greater safety and better communities for everyone.”

– Ronald Martin, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Raleigh, NC

“Using drugs doesn’t make anyone less of a person. We’re here to learn how to protect drug users’ rights and to reduce the harm caused by active drug use.”

– Ron Crowder, Streetworks, Nashville, TN

“I’m stoked at the number of people who have poured out to support southern harm reduction. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve always said that if we could bring support and experts to the south and begin to educate our folks about harm reduction, we could really start to see changes here.”

– Jeff McDowell, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“I’m here to learn and to support my fellow peers in the trenches…I believe we can learn from each other. We get a lot of edicts from the CDC about prevention measures, but what works in New York might not work in the rural south. At this conference I can meet someone from Kentucky who is doing great work and I can bring it back to my state and emulate it.”

– Art Jackson, Independent, Fayetteville, NC

“It’s wonderful see participation from sex workers and people who use drugs. Living in Washington DC it’s easy to get away from that, so it’s important for me to listen and participate and to get involved with people on the ground.”

– Whitney Englander, Harm Reduction Coalition, Washington DC


*To see conference photos go to the “Southern Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Network” Facebook page

*To check out the podcast on the conference go to the following link:

Mobilizing in DC for World Hepatitis Day

by Leilani Attilio, Intern
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

On July 28, 2012, North Carolina  Harm Reduction joined other hepatitis activists on the White House lawn to commemorate World Hepatitis Day with a special focus on Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV).  Hepatitis has reached epidemic proportions around the world, including the United States, but has largely flown under the radar in communities.   Approximately 805,000 to 1.4 million people1 and 3.2 million people2 are infected with HBV and HCV in the United States, respectively. Unfortunately, people who are infected with HCV, which is the leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer in the United States, may not have any signs or symptoms for decades, making the spread of the disease more pervasive.  In addition, to give a sense to the seriousness of the disease (if the word “cancer” wasn’t enough), deaths due to HCV have surpassed those from HIV/AIDS3.  In an effort to curtail further transmission and deaths, the White House hosted the fifth World Hepatitis Day on August 2 to bring awareness to the threat of the disease across the country.

Featured panelists and speakers at the White House included Congressman Hank Johnson, who spoke about HCV as a person living with the disease; Dr. Howard Koh, the Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Dr. John Ward, Director of the Viral Hepatitis Program at the CDC.  The gathering was a platform to roll out strategy plans, recommendations, and tools for surveillance.  For example, the CDC unveiled an online risk assessment tool for hepatitis.  The brief questionnaire asks various questions such as year of birth and nativity.  At the end of the questionnaire, the assessment tool generates a printable summary and recommendations to discuss with your health care provider.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is working closely with the North Carolina legislature for the state to adopt recommendations supported by numerous professional medical organizations such as American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and Institute of Medicine.  These recommendations include syringe decriminalization, which would allow us to conduct syringe exchanges in North Carolina without criminal prosecution.  Injection drug use is a risk factor for HCV due to practices such as sharing needles during injection.   The coalition is looking forward to minimizing the risk of disease for all people and collaborating with other organizations t do this.  We hope you will join the fight.  The first step is to raise awareness. Consider this step checked off.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is a grantee of AIDS United’s Southern REACH initiative.


1. Weinbaum CM, Williams I, Mast EE. Recommendations for identification and public health management of person with chronic hepatitis B virus infection: MMWR 57(RR-8):2;2008.

2. Armstrong GL, Wasley A, Simard EP, McQuillan GM, Kuhnert WL, Alter MJ. The prevalence of hepatitis C virus infection in the United States, 1999 through 2002. Ann Intern Med. May 16 2006;144(10):705-714.

3. Ly KN, Xing J, Klevens RM, Jiles RB, Ward JW, Holmberg SD. The increasing burden of mortality from viral hepatitis in the United States between 1999 and 2007. Ann Intern Med. Feb 21 2012;156(4):271-278.

The United Nations, HIV, and the Law

by Robert BB Childs, MPH, Executive Director
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC)

Childs-Presenting-at-UNDPRecently I and my colleague Deon Haywood, Executive Director of Women with a Vision (WWAV) were invited to present at the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, which is one of the cosponsors of UNAIDS, on September 16th and 17th, 2011.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law interrogated the relationship between legal responses, human rights and HIV. The Commission also focused on some of the most challenging legal and human rights issues in the context of HIV, including criminalization of HIV transmission, behaviors and practices such as drug use, sex work, same-sex sexual relations, and issues of prisoners, migrants, children’s rights, violence against women and access to treatment. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law is developing actionable, evidence-informed and human rights-based recommendations for effective HIV responses that protect and promote the human rights of people living with and most vulnerable to HIV.

According to UNDP HIV Practice Director Jeffrey O’Malley, “The law and its application can have an impact on the lives of people, especially those who are marginalized and disempowered. The law is a powerful instrument to challenge stigma, promote public health, and protect human rights. We know that the laws and policies of High Income countries also affect developing countries. We have much to learn from the positive and negative experiences in high income countries on the interactions between the law, legislative reform, law enforcement practices, and public health responses.”

My presentation focused on how drug paraphernalia laws in North Carolina lead to the spread of HIV, hepatitis, sex work, incarceration and poverty.  Deon presented on the negative effects of the Louisiana Prison Industrial Complex, as well as how negative laws against sex workers lead to the spread of HIV.  Both NCHRC and WWV were mentioned in the final testimony by UNDP HIV Practice Director & UNAIDS Representative Jeffrey O’Malley for their fine work in the face of adversity.  The members of the group were deeply touched by NCHRC’s & WWV’s testimonies and were saddened on hear about the lack of services and legal barriers against the people most vulnerable to HIV infection in the South.  Also attending the meeting was Congresswomen Barbara Lee, Congressman Jim McDermott, members of the UN, members of the Danish, Austrian, German & Canadian Parliament and many other HIV experts.

Responding on behalf of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D) of Oakland, a Commissioner stated “the effectiveness of the global HIV response will depend not just on the scale up of HIV prevention, treatment and care, but on whether the legal and social environment support or hinder programs for those who are most vulnerable. This requires bold and effective legal and policy measures to reach out to vulnerable communities and individuals at risk. The Bipartisan Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, which I co-chair will deal with these very issues.”

For more info on the commission go to:

Reducing Harm and Building Communities: Addressing Drug Use in the South

by Robert BB Childs, MPH, Executive Director, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC)
Melicia Laroco-Molter, member, NCHRC


On September 8th and 9th, 2011, around 200 people from all corners of the South converged in Durham, NC for the first conference to discuss issues surrounding drug use, sex work and harm reduction in their communities. The attendees represented many groups including representatives of the military, law enforcement, Republicans and Democrats the North Carolina House of Representatives, outreach workers, health professionals, academics, sex workers, people of transgender experience and drug users. The conference kicked off with a blessing from Rev Dr. Tamsey Philips Hill, a chaplain at Duke University Hospital and a staff member of Partners in Care of the Carolinas. Deon Haywood of New Orleans’ Women with a Vision and Robert Childs of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition led an overview of the conference.

Rep. Verla Insko (D-56) touched upon her experience as a health program administrator at the University of North Carolina as she spoke about the need for more harm reduction practices in North Carolina and throughout the South. Rep. Glen Bradley (R-49), an admirer of Fredrick Douglass’ vision of the Constitution, then spoke about the need for political advocacy for syringe decriminalization and the lack of effectiveness of the war on drugs. Daniel Raymond, the Policy Director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, then gave an eloquent overview of harm reduction. Daniel spoke about those that touted the idea “if they [drug users] don’t want to get HIV, it’s just that simple – stop using drugs.” Noting their ignorance of drug use, he pointed out the true meaning: “If you are using drugs, you’re life isn’t worth saving.” Harm reduction, in effect, shows people, “[r]ight here, right now, your life is worth saving.”

Several testimonials followed. Perry Parks, a Vietnam War veteran, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and current President of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients’ Network, recounted his experiences with chronic pain and pain management through the use of cannabis, and his subsequent loss of his hard-won military reputation. Bob Scott, a former captain of the Macon County Sherriff’s Office in Franklin, NC, described his experiences with the war on drugs in rural North Carolina. Patrick Packer of the Southern AIDS Coalition, testified to the lack of attention and services given to Southerners living with HIV/AIDS. Leigh Maddox, a retired captain of the Maryland State Police and current Special Assistant State’s Attorney for the State of Maryland, gave a deeply personal testimonial on how her own personal and professional losses to the war on drugs fueled her advocacy to view substance abuse as a health problem and her anti-prohibition stance. In addition, Human Rights Watch released an in-depth report on the status of human rights and HIV in the Southern United States, which will be released on their website soon.

Video of the opening session of the conference can be found here, compliments of Richard Cassidy.

This provided an inspiring platform for the rest of conference. The panels ranged from building alliances with law enforcement and faith-based communities to fundraising and program implementation to the rising use of crack cocaine and prescription drugs in the South. Prof. Sam MacMaster of the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work highlighted the high prevalence of crack cocaine use in the South and how it intersects with HIV/AIDS. The conference provided, not just a learning experience, but also as a place to meet others in the South that are working on the same issues. Many participants are from organizations that are not based in the hubs of Atlanta, New Orleans, Durham or DC and often do not meet others in the field. As one participant pointed out, “Finally, I do not feel alone.”

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) Gains Support of Local Law Enforcement

Organization Unites with Local Law Enforcement & Injection Drug Users to Fight for Syringe Decriminalization and Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs)

by Robert BB Childs, MPH
Executive Director
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC)

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) has been able to advocate for syringe decriminalization and the legalization of syringe exchange programs thanks to grants from AIDS United. NCHRC is North Carolina’s only comprehensive harm reduction program.  NCHRC engages in grassroots advocacy, resource development, coalition building and direct services for those made vulnerable by drug use, sex work, overdose, immigration status, gender, STIs, HIV and hepatitis.

In solidarity with law enforcement and Injection Drug Users (IDUs), NCHRC has been advocating for saner syringe access laws.  North Carolina has an estimated 25,000-50,000 IDUs, restrictive syringe access laws and no legal Syringe Exchange Programs; this has contributed to over 35,000 HIV infections and over 150,000 hepatitis C infections due to syringe and injection equipment sharing.

Though NC boasts 5 underground syringe exchange programs spread throughout the state in the Triangle, Winston Salem, Carrboro, Greensboro and Asheville, they cannot come close to meeting the population’s needs due to legal and financial barriers. Unfortunately for NC, this has led to “one in three” law enforcement officers receiving accidental needle-sticks over their careers. In NC, it is illegal to carry syringes or injection equipment to inject drugs, therefore users share equipment and do not inform law enforcement if they are carrying equipment.  This leaves law enforcement prone to needlesticks when they perform mandatory pat downs by accidentally touching the syringe tips. Complicating matters, law enforcement are not given needlestick resistant gloves as standard issue due to budget cuts, thus they have no protection from needlesticks.  When injured by the needle, they may have to receive expensive post exposure prophylaxis, which leads to sick time, a loss of income to the department , loss of labor and possible HIV and hepatitis infection to the officer.

Twenty-eight percent of NC law enforcement will receive multiple sticks over their career, which recently happened to an officer in Kannapolis, NC. In response to this health concern, some law enforcement have joined NCHRC’s syringe decriminalization advocacy movement, due to the overwhelming evidence that syringe decriminalization, which allows for syringe exchange programs, decreases needlesticks by 66%.  Law enforcement are sick of being exposed to needlesticks and thus are joining NCHRC in its advocacy to efforts to fight in union for change.  Recently the former Sheriff of Macon County came out in support of our cause, as well as officers from the Charlotte, Concord, Franklin and Winston Salem areas.  NCHRC was able to connect with multiple law enforcement by leading trainings for crisis intervention team officers on working with injection drug users and responding to drug overdoses, by contacting sympathetic officers referred by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and by directly approaching law enforcement members and trainers.

On April 13th, 2011, NCHRC will bring law enforcement, injection drug users, farm workers who inject vitamins and antibiotics, transgender people who inject hormones, concerned citizens and public health officials, in union with our colleagues at the NC AIDS Action Network to unify for saner syringe and HIV policies in North Carolina.  We will unify as one at the legislature to call North Carolina to liberate itself from unhealthy policies.

We’ll be there and we hope that you too will join in solidarity with us.

A VOCAL Victory

by Sean Barry,
Director, NYC AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) &
Voices Of Community Advocates and Leaders (VOCAL)

No one should be locked up for trying to protect themselves and the community. Who wants to do the right thing and keep getting the wrong results?” — participant in VOCAL’s Stuck in the System report on legal barriers to syringe access in New York.

Governor Paterson and members of NYCAHN/VOCAL

Carrying new syringes and safely disposing of used ones to prevent the spread of HIV should be lauded as responsible public health, not treated as a crime.  But that’s exactly how New York’s Penal Code defined syringe possession until a law passed this summer updating it nearly two decades after syringe exchange programs first became legal in our state. What’s equally remarkable is that the new law passed because of grassroots organizing by active and former injection drug users through an innovative campaign supported by the Syringe Access Fund.

The VOCAL-NY Users Union, a project of the NYC AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), is building power among active and former drug users to create healthier and more just communities.  VOCAL members decided to work on a syringe access campaign because many of them had experienced police harassment and arrests for syringe possession.  Moreover, they knew that the fear of being locked up discouraged people from using syringe exchange programs that could save their lives, even though program participants were issued cards explaining it was legal to possess syringes under the Public Health Law.

The problem was that New York’s Penal Code was never updated to exempt syringe possession from the paraphernalia law or residue from the controlled substances law, despite Public Health Law exemptions.  These inconsistencies in state law resulted in confusion among law enforcement, unwarranted arrests and confiscation of syringes.  This had a broader chilling effect that helped drive a massive “syringe gap” among drug injectors in New York and high rates of syringe sharing, reuse and unsafe disposal.

VOCAL members launched the campaign by convening a meeting with staff from Governor David Paterson’s office and state legislators in charge of health and criminal justice policies.  VOCAL members presented data and anecdotal experiences of how law enforcement, confused by inconsistencies in the law, were undermining public health programs by arresting syringe exchange participants, and they presented clear recommendations for how to change it.

As a result of the meeting, the Governor submitted a bill to the legislature that would accomplish three things: clarify that possession of new syringes obtained through public health programs do not violate the paraphernalia law, exempt syringe residue from the controlled substances law, and require ongoing education of law enforcement about syringe access programs, which opens up the possibility for a new health-based dialogue between drug users and police.

To build momentum for the bill, VOCAL members conducted a community research project documenting the experiences of users who had been arrested despite lawfully possessing syringes, built a statewide coalition of syringe exchange programs, met with conservative lawmakers to educate them about harm reduction, and pitched media stories highlighting the need to reconcile state laws.  Positive press coverage of our campaign and report, titled Stuck in the System: Expanding Syringe Access By Reconciling the Penal Code With The Public Health Law [], included the New York Times [] and Daily News [].

The bill ultimately passed the legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Governor Paterson.  In his statement after the bill passed, the Governor quoted Jill Reeves, a VOCAL member who had been wrongfully arrested for syringe possession [].

Perhaps more important than the legislative victory, this campaign built the leadership of active and former drug users to advocate on their own behalf.  Our members are now working with top law enforcement agencies in the state, health departments and other stakeholders to plan implementation of the new law [].  By training users on their new rights, VOCAL members are also identifying future campaigns that will further expand syringe access so that no one contracts HIV or hepatitis C through injection drug use in the future.

The reality is that people who use drugs and their allies have always been at the forefront of activism to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and fight for human rights, despite formidable obstacles.  But in a pattern common in the HIV/AIDS world, many activists have been drawn away from advocacy into direct service work, while others, we can’t forget, have passed away.  However, the necessity of investing in community leadership to expand syringe access and improve drug user health is only growing more urgent, which VOCAL/NYCAHN has proudly benefited from due to the collaborative efforts of the Syringe Access Fund.