On sentence vs. treatment, in an Italian villa, among palms and rabbits

24 November 2016

Having an insight into the setting, Villa Maraini (Rome, Italy), which one might say is a “paradise for people who use drugs”, would help to understand the context in which a 3-day study tour for harm reduction workers, organised by EHRN, took place in mid- November. The foundation was established by Massimo Barra under the Italian branch of the Red Cross and offers various programs for people who use drugs, especially problematic heroin users. The Villa, placed in the centre of a beautiful garden and park provides various services such as methadone substitution therapy, health clinic, therapeutic community, drop-in shelter, HIV/HCV test point, etc. This year, Villa Maraini celebrated 40 years of harm reduction activities.

One of the most incredible programs the Villa offers is an alternative imprisonment for drug offenders where, if you are a (“lucky”) person addicted to drugs with a sentence for up to five years, instead of prison you may go for a three years treatment at th Villa, where palms are growing in the garden and rabbits run around. The study tour allowed attendees to experience a pioneering example of Italian harm reduction services in the supportive surrounding that exemplifies the “support don’t punish” paradigm.

The program of the workshop offered us an insight into Villa Maraini’s services where we learnt about the daily activities of the patients (for example cooking for African refugees), the daily activities of the workers at the Villa or in the Street Unit. We had a chance to eat, speak and socialize with the patients and workers, we listened to their personal stories and we learnt about a very social and human approach that has established itself as Villa Maraini’s modus operandi. Their approach is based on equality between doctors and patients, a method, which creates a real foundation for co-operation by having at its core understanding for each other’s needs, trying to find a solution acceptable for everyone. At Villa Maraini, you can see that a set of guiding principles allows for each service user to feel like they have a unique experience, which makes them feel connected. This makes the patient feel that the service is a valuable one where the organisation’s investment in them justifies their emotional and physical investment.

Despite the proclaimed “broad consensus” on drugs – the United Nations agreement on the drug problem – we are witnessing various approaches of governments to national drug law as well as the divergent attitudes towards harm reduction. However, even our Eastern European national laws regarding drugs are varying in their efficacy and even logic. The contrast between the long history of Czech Republic’s harm reduction services and their demonstrable results compared to the situation/law/services available in Georgia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovenia where the other participants were coming from, leaves a sense of hopelessness regarding the huge ideological divides. Through debating common issues and sharing knowledge and experience, we understood better alternative policies and brainstormed over ideas of how to network and help each other. This experience helped us remember the ever-constant truth of how important it is for people who work in this field to get together and support each other from within, helping them build a strong foundation to withstand external pressures. This experiences for Harm Reducers to meet, share, challenge, and learn was very necessary as it helped us understand other approaches, and the resulting motivation and inspiration was especially valuable.

In our work it is easy to get lost in the misery and hopelessness that comes with seeing the status quo of the macrocosm. The experience in Italy showed many Harm Reduction

Workers that there are microcosms where work with drug users is done in a way that can drive real personal results and offer international inspiration, which should be considered by all parties interested in improving welfare for anyone in society exposed to drugs.

A 3-day study tour for harm reduction workers from Eastern European countries was organized during the second weekend in November, as part of the project, funded by the European Commission “Harm reduction works! Improving funding for harm reduction and HIV prevention in the EU” (IHRA/EC Fund It 2015)”.