Worldwide Protests Set for UN Anti-Drugs Day This Thursday [FEATURE]

This Thursday, June 26, is the United Nations' International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which has been used by many governments to justify harsh crackdowns and promote harsh punishments, including exemplary executions. This year, activists around the world will hold their own demonstrations calling not for war more drug war, but for less.

While most UN anti-drug events are fairly anodyne -- last year's highlights include a "sharing best practices" seminar in Vienna and the release of the annual World Drugs Report -- other activities associated with the day are downright gruesome. In 2008, Indonesia marked the day by resuming drug executions; in 2009, China celebrated it by executing 20 people, and last year, China got a jump on events by executing six people in the run-up to anti-drug day.

Civil society is saying "enough." In more than 80 cities across the globe, activists gathering under the banner "Support, Don't Punish: Global Day of Action" will be taking to the streets to protest against policies that have led to mass incarceration, the exacerbation of health crises, and the prospering of violent criminal drug trafficking organizations. Instead, "Support, Don't Punish" will call for a more effective and humane approach to the drug issue, one based on public health, harm reduction, and human rights.

While the global drug war is estimated to cost $100 billion a year -- with unclear impact for reducing harms related to substance abuse -- "Support, Don't Punish" calls for investments in proven, cost-effective harm reduction responses for people who use drugs, and for the decriminalization of people who use drugs and the removal of other laws that impede public health services.

The campaign is truly global, with the endorsement of more than 150 organizations, including not only well-known groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the International Drug Policy Consortium, but also local, regional, and national groups from every continent except Antarctica.

Mass demonstrations and other actions are planned in London, New York, Paris, Warsaw, Mexico City, Kathmandu, Rome, Phnom Penh, Tbilisi, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and more than 70 other cities. The actions include peaceful demonstrations, street performances, public meetings and workshops, social media campaigns and advertisements on public transportation and billboards.

A trio of activists in different cities around the globe contacted by the Chronicle provide a hint of what to expect.

"In London, we will be holding a demonstration outside Parliament to highlight the failure of the war on drugs and calling on the UK government to end the criminalization of people who use drugs under the 'Support Don't Punish' banner," said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the British drug NGO Release, which is organizing the London event. "Additionally, we will be writing to the Prime Minister asking for reform of national policy and asking that the British government commit to meaningful engagement in the international discussions leading to the UN drugs summit in New York in 2016 allowing for discussion of alternatives to prohibition."

"In Mexico City, we have created a microsite that summarizes the ten reasons why every Mexican should be involved and interested in drug policy reform," said Adam Barra, program officer for the youth-oriented organization Espolea. "The site includes video capsules of public figures, as well as info graphics that present the most relevant information to form one's own opinion on drug policy. Lastly, the site includes the support of over 20 national organizations from various sectors of society and diverse thematic focuses," Barra added.

"The site will be launched on June 26, as Bee Open Space in Mexico City, and will be followed by a panel with renowned experts on the subject who will make a balance of the punitive versus the health approaches currently used in Mexico," he continued. "After the panel, guests will be invited to watch a screening of the documentary The House I Live In. We expect 50 people be present at the launching, but we expect half a million unique visits to the site over the next month."

"In Katmandu, we will convene a national symposium, as well as demonstrations and marches here and in five other Nepalese cities, said Anan Pun, founder of the Nepalese Coalition for Health, Human Rights, and Harm Reduction (Coalition H3). "We will be doing awareness-raising and media outreach, as well as building the leadership and advocacy skills of various actors, including media, civil society and community groups, and their networks."

While "Support, Don't Punish" protestors around the planet will be united in calling for reform of the UN drug control system -- the legal backbone of global drug prohibition -- each country has its own particular issues, and the campaign will be addressing those as well.

"We will be highlighting the damage caused by our drug laws at a national level," said Release's Eastwood. "In particular, the fact that drug policing disproportionately targets the Black and Asian communities, with black people being six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, and Asian people twice as likely to be searched. This is despite the fact that both groups use drugs at a lower rate than the white population. This is driving the racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice System in England and Wales," he explained.

"Our drug laws allow for the mass searching of certain communities. In London, for example, drugs searches make up 60% of all stop and searches. Despite being given ample opportunity to reform their practices the police have not been able to address racial disproportionately and we believe real change can only be achieved by reforming the laws and in the first instance ending criminal sanctions for possession of drugs," Eastwood explained.

"Mexico is one of the countries that has taken the war to its last consequences," said Espolea's Barra. "Official figures report over 60,000 deaths and 20,000 disappeared people in the period 2006-2012. In Mexico, only 1.8% of the population reported using drugs in the last year, yet we are seeing an average of 15,000 killings a year because of our drug policies. Former President Felipe Calderon addressed the UN and joined other countries in the region in calling for al revision of the global drug war consensus, and now we await the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. It is crucial that Mexico improves its drug policy before then."

"In Nepal, we are urging all stakeholders, including the government, policymakers, and parliamentarians to make policy based on science and evidence -- fostering human rights, health and well-being of mankind rather than on total elimination of drugs from the world," said the Coalition 3H's Pun. "This is an important opportunity to build the country capacity for advocacy and mobilize the country for public health and rights-based drug policies. We need to hold our government and every other actors accountable and stand up for humane and evidence based drug policy in Nepal and elsewhere in the globe," he said.

This coming UN anti-drug day is about to get a response like never before. With the global demonstrations, the drug reform movement demonstrates both its worldwide reach and its imperative to change the world not just at the highest international levels, but at home as well. Different countries have different issues, but all of them are burdened by an international drug prohibition regime from the last century. There appears to be a growing consensus that it is time for something new.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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