Worldwide Protests Erupt Over the Racist, Failed War on Drugs
On June 26, people in over 100 cities in at least 46 countries will speak out against the war on drugs.
It is difficult to overstate how much of a failure the war on drugs has been. By any reasonable standard it has done much more harm than good. Drug trafficking-related violence has soared, our prisons are stuffed with drug offenders (many of them non-violent), with minorities disproportionately represented. It is a costly, global economic disaster with economic gains from cannabis and other drugs restricted to the black market. Scientists are kept from studying cannabis, a plant that has proven to ease the suffering of countless medical patients—and those patients are forced to break federal law if they want to obtain their medicine. Even by the drug war’s own misguided metrics, the project has failed. The US alone has invested $51 billion annually but drug use and availability have not decreased. Drug potency has steeply risen over the last several decades and the public is not safer for the drug war’s efforts.
Other countries, while not spending this absurd amount, have seen similar self-inflicted harm from their repressive drug policies. Criminalization has not done anything to stem the demand for mind-altering substances. Rather, it has created an ecosystem that fosters gang activity on a neighborhood level, and violent, politically connected cartels on a countrywide scale.
The final, and in a way, most tragic piece of this picture is that the drug war’s failures are common knowledge, yet politicians in the U.S. and worldwide (with parts of Latin America emerging as notable exceptions) seem almost entirely impotent when it comes to obvious reforms, namely ending cannabis prohibition.
The drug war’s colossal failure and near-global reach is inspiring an equally global movement pushing for reform. Protests, demonstrations, teachouts and other actions are being organized across the world in over 100 cities this week to protest senseless and harmful drug policies.
Support Don’t Punish, the campaign that unites these cities, seeks to change the narrative around drug users from criminals to people who may need social and medical assistance. The global day of action is timed to match the U.N. International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Political leaders have often used this day as a time for cruel demonstrations against drug users and the drug trade. Now, organizers across the world are working to reframe the debate on this internationally recognized drug day.
“To be honest, I don’t think we ever imagined it would be taken up on this scale,” lead organizer Jamie Bridge said.
Different countries are tailoring their message and actions to fit their specific situations. England, the U.S. and many other countries in the Americas are focused on pressuring legislators to consider alternatives to drug criminalization. Other countries are calling attention to the spread of HIV and other diseases through dirty needles. France and Australia are campaigning around “drug consumption rooms”—safe spaces where people may go to use drugs with clean equipment and receive social support. The French campaign notes that use of these rooms tends to lessen drug use and save public money through reduced crime and healthcare costs.
Still others are using the day of action to cultivate support through teach outs and citizen education movements. This tactic may prove especially necessary in Peru where many people support the repressive policies of the government despite its “tough on crime” stance having only a superficial effect, according to political science professor Juan Manuel Torres.
“There is complete ignorance of the dynamics of the phenomenon and the most convenient ways to fix it,” said Torres of the drug war and its social costs. (Prof. Torres’ quotes are translated from Spanish.) “One ton of cocaine impounded at the international airport is an achievement that will benefit the government in power politically, but it will not solve the underlying problem of drug trafficking in the long term.”
These politically popular but ultimately meaningless victories in the war on drugs are hardly restricted to Peru.
Niamh Eastwood, an organizer at Release, a London-based drug reform advocacy group, said in a press release: “In the UK…the two main parties – the Conservatives and Labour – are reluctant to engage in the debate preferring a ‘tough on crime, tough on drugs’ stance. That is why it is the job of civil society in the UK to highlight the damage the current criminal justice approach does and why, especially the Labour Party, needs to consider how our drug laws are interconnected with issues of social justice.”
Organizers in Mexico City found that the sheer number of street protests and demonstrations in Mexico makes people tune them out, so instead they are using the June 26 day to launch a microsite (a small, targeted website) packed with interviews, infographics and op-eds on why Mexico’s drug policies are detrimental to every one of its citizens.
“On July 28-31, the Congress is putting together a series of hearings on drug reform,” says Aram Barra, a drug reform organizer in Mexico City. “They want to have an open and very dynamic discussion. We talked to them, and we want the microsite to create the groundwork for the next month.”
The global campaign is spreading on social media via the hashtag #supportdontpunish. In Colombia, organizers are collecting pictures people have been posting with the Spanish translation, #apoyenocastigue, to use for a book and site launch planned for June 26. The day will culminate in an event featuring Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, who advocates for progressive drug policies.
If each of these events is notable, the sheer number of them is staggering. The Americas and Europe are represented, but so are Kenya, Cambodia, Egypt, Macedonia and six cities in India, to name just a few.
“When we started last year, we set an ambitious target of enrolling seven cities,” Bridge said. “We ended up with 41, and have more than doubled that for 2014.”
The larger project at work here is to change the dominant paradigm around drug use and abuse from one of crime and punishment to one of public health and social support. Drug users ought to be seen on a continuum from people who have a harmless hobby to people who are putting themselves and others at risk. Millions of people around the world understand this, and are making themselves known. It is time for the politicians that represent them to start listening.