Interview with Massimo Barra

As Vice President of the Red Cross and Red Crescent International, what are the values that support your work in the area of drugs and drug addiction?

The international movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent, with 186 national societies active in most countries across the world, is based on seven Fundamental Principles: Humanity, Universality, Neutrality, Impartiality, Independence, Unity and Voluntary.

The first Principle is the most important. Humanity is the base of all our actions towards vulnerable people. Drug addicts can be considered among the most vulnerable people in the world, because they suffer physically, psychically and socially.

Do you think that there is a wide gap between the international policy on drugs and the principles established in the Rome Consensus?

International drug policy is still very far from the scientific evidence and from humanitarian principles; this is because it is controlled more by the repressive framework of the states than by those interested in health.

The annual reunions of UNODC in Vienna are more frequented by policemen, customs officers, judges and bureaucrats than by doctors, psychologists and social activists. This underlines that the states are more worried about the application of the prohibitionist policies that generate criminality than about the health of drug users.

You have said that “it’s time to advocate a new way, beyond prohibition and even harm reduction”. Can you explain your point of view about this position?

A new humanitarian policy about drugs is one that will join compassion (in the etymological sense of the term, to take charge of the sufferings and difficulties of drug addicts) with therapeutic ability in order to help these people to overcome their addiction.

In our experience of over 30,000 cases nobody can be considered as irrecoverable and the passage of time can be a formidable ally of therapy.

Both prohibition and harm reduction contain ambiguities that must be overcome and clarified.

There is a stupid and blind prohibition that treats drugs as the worst of all evils and drug users as sinners or criminals.
This is the view still dominant in the world. This contempt for drug users, their necessities and their pathology automatically produce stigma and discrimination.

We know that discrimination and stigmatization of drug users kill many more than the substances themselves. The collateral effects of the prohibition are an unacceptable weight because they transform the ideology of the war on drugs into a war against drug users. This position leads to harm for individuals, for their families and for society in general. It’s against the interest of the states as well because it doesn’t safeguard the health of their citizens.

Also harm reduction can be interpreted ambiguously as a waiver of the prior therapeutic goal of overcoming the pathological condition of drug addicts.

In a humanitarian drug policy, harm reduction is an integral part of the therapy; it’s therapy itself and it has the aim to safeguard the life and the quality of the life of the drug users, in the active waiting for the moment in which the crazy “love story” of an individual for a substance will lose its initial fascination and will decrease in routine (the moment of success for a therapy).

Humanitarian drug policy is concerned for the health of consumers, for their life and for the collateral consequences of consumption and with every known tool that works to overcome addiction.

It’s conscious of the huge costs of prohibition in terms of criminality, cohesion and social alarm but it’s even conscious that the greater number of deaths due to drugs use in the world is due to legal drugs and not by illicit drugs. In this way prohibition can be a brake to consumption.

Today what is the role of the treatment centres, like Villa Maraini that you founded in 1973, in order to help drug users in an absent institutional and politic context?

 The treatment centre should help people overcome addiction as well as orient public opinion and institutions towards the best policies, in order to face the phenomenon positively and not make it worse.

 Unfortunately many treatment centres around the world are becoming a problem themselves because they are governed by ambiguous and dogmatic people or by faithful executors of repressive and authoritarian rules established by the governments that are not interested to the health of their citizens.