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January 18, 2007 - Salt Lake City Weekly (UT)

Drug Truce

Salt Lake City's Harm Reduction Project Finds Success Where The War On Drugs Has Failed.

By Ted McDonough

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The phone rings at the end of the day at Harm Reduction Project's offices on 100 South and 300 West. The project's last client -- either a drug user or sex worker -- has just left with a bus token. Project Executive Director Luciano Colonna excuses himself to take the call.

"We're putting you on the agenda for the first day. You're speaking on a panel called 'Your Kid's on Meth,'" Colonna tells the woman on the end, a scheduled speaker for the project's upcoming methamphetamine conference.

She'll speak on a panel alongside the author of a book for parents with children on drugs that emphasizes safe drug use over "just say no" lecturing. That makes the caller nervous. The caller wants to know what the conference's bias is. No bias, Colonna says, but, "You might hear things you might object to."

Salt Lake City's Harm Reduction Project expects to bring 1,000 people to the Hilton City Center Hotel Feb. 1-3 for a repeat of a National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis first held in 2005. The focus of this year's event on the public health aspects of meth use will be the latest science surrounding the drug. Conference participants are coming from England, Indonesia, New Zealand and Africa.

Salt Lake City's Harm Reduction Project has been around since 1998 serving intravenous drug users, prisoners and prostitutes with nonjudgmental counseling and education aimed at keeping them as healthy as possible. But the project only recently came to wide public attention after hosting the first meth conference two years ago.

The gathering brought condemnation from an Indiana congressman who took exception to lecture topics such as "We Don't Need a War on Meth" and suggested the federally funded event was a front for drug legalization.

The Harm Reduction Project made another splash last year with a billboard campaign aimed at getting drug users to call 911 in case of an overdose. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson jumped onto the campaign.

The spotlight hasn't slowed the project's momentum. In addition to many private foundations, the Harm Reduction Project receives funding from the state of Utah, Salt Lake County and the federal Centers for Disease Control. With an annual budget of $750,000, it now operates an office and drop-in center in Denver. It has contracted work with Montana, New Mexico and Arizona. Last year, the project opened a lobbying office in Washington, D.C.

Colonna currently hopes to open a law office for the project in New York City that will train public defenders to represent clients charged with drug crimes and change how the law deals with pregnant drug addicts. Colonna wants to avoid what he believes are unproductive prosecutions, like that of Melissa Rowland, charged in Utah in 2004 with murder after her stillborn babies tested positive for cocaine.

The Harm Reduction Project's success has been propelled by the increasing frustration of government officials with what Colonna calls "the failed drug war." Colonna also maintains a strong local presence, sitting on Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s meth task force.

In the upcoming legislative session, Hunstman proposes an anti-meth initiative that will include a publicity campaign and funding for treatment, plus an expansion of the state's drug-court program. Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, will once again be pushing for a larger effort, named the Drug Offender Reform Act, that would attempt to divert drug-addicted criminals from prison into treatment.

"People used to call us the 'fallback strategy,'" Colonna said. "We've changed that. The fallback strategy is the police. If we do our jobs right, if social-service agencies have enough money, we don't need the police to arrest people left and right."

Salt Lake City might seem an unlikely place to find a national conference on meth, let alone national headquarters of an organization that provides condoms to prostitutes. But Colonna said Salt Lake County has for years looked to the larger public-health community in dealing with drugs, including the Harm Reduction Program. Mayor Anderson has furthered a compassionate view of drug use. Now, with Huntsman, the state has a governor embracing drug treatment over harsh penalties.

The meth conference has its roots in the AIDS crisis. Experts had known for years that rates of HIV infection among heroin users were lower west of the Ohio River, where black tar heroin required frequent syringe cleaning to prevent needle blockage. Meth doesn't have the same gooey properties requiring needle cleansing, however, and as users turn more and more to injecting the drug, the chance of an AIDS outbreak increases, said Colonna. The meth conference was born to stave off such a catastrophe.

New Zealand is trying to reduce meth harm by selling amphetamine over-the-counter as a substitute, much as clinics provide methadone to heroin users.

Colonna said other harm-reduction approaches with meth might include condom education, since users often become promiscuous, or convincing users to smoke the drug instead of injecting it.

"To some people, that might seem outrageous but it doesn't seem outrageous to me," he said. "To get them to eat; to get them to take breaks. Harm reduction is getting people to get in contact with their families. Often, that's the biggest hurdle to get clean."

But even if the Harm Reduction Program had funding for such programs, Colonna isn't certain how well they would work. Ultimately, any program must refer users to treatment, where the current waiting time is five months.

"There is no answer to meth," he said. "There is no answer to any of these drugs. But there is a great element of support that we could give our children and our family members and our friends, and that is access to treatment. That is where the problem really lies."

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