Activists in Hundreds of Cities Across the Globe Stage Actions Calling for Drug Policy Reform

Tuesday, activists in NYC joined with thousands of people in over 200 cities around the world as part of the “Support. Don’t Punish” Global Day of Action to demand an end to drug policies that disregard the value of human life and reduce drug use to a one-dimensional law enforcement issue. The rally in NYC, held outside of the United Nations Headquarters, and the events around the world coincide with the United Nations’ International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking – a day when governments typically celebrate their record of drug arrests and seizures. In the past, some governments have even commemorated this day by holding public executions or beatings of drug offenders. Today’s “Support. Don’t Punish” events offer a platform for participants to reject the recent global drug policy trends that threaten international norms and human lives at home and abroad, as well as personal freedoms.

During the last year, the landscape of drug use and its related harms in the United States has only grown more severe. Fatal opioid-related overdoses have swelled, reaching unprecedented levels in 2016. Meanwhile, federal responses to this public health crisis have been lacking and ineffective, and the American public has paid for this with their lives. Treatment access for addiction is as elusive as ever, as it remains side-lined to the preferred response to drug use: court proceedings and incarceration.  By contrast, in New York City, community organizations and local government have worked to facilitate some harm reduction measures to combat drug misuse and harm. In addition to operationalizing sterile syringe access programs, the city also has issued a standing order to promote the use of the life-saving overdose reversal drug “naloxone”. But to meaningfully promote public safety and reduce harm, such reforms are insufficient. The United States must enact comprehensive drug policy reform that will center on the dignity of human beings and evidence-based research on drug use.

In addition to failing to implement any meaningful responses to drug use domestically, the United States has spent the year condoning the reprehensible drug policies that other nations have enacted. These countries have spent the last year trying to legitimize the practice of denying persons who use drugs access to treatment they may need, due process, dignity, and medicine. Although these policies have not eliminated the international problems of addiction, fatal overdose, drug trafficking or HIV infection prevalence, this has not immunized them from consideration by the US executive branch.

The President of the United States has proposed using the death penalty to respond to drug-related crimes, a statement legitimized by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ subsequent memo encouraging federal prosecutors to use the death penalty to respond to certain drug crimes. But these crimes are better seen through the lens of public health, as it is illegal under international law to execute people for drug-related crimes. Similarly, “tough on drugs” approaches often result in policies that destroy families, as can be seen in the recent separation of families at the Southern US border. This family separation policy is significantly based on the need to prevent drugs from “spilling” into the United States. Such policies do nothing to curb drug trafficking.  Moreover, the ripple effects of policies like these destroy families at their core and fly in the face of everything that we know about the relevance of family connections that are crucial to the health and well-being of our society.

Advocates hope to sustain the momentum created by the “Support. Don’t Punish” campaign to increase pressure on United Nations member states to reform international drug policies at the 2019 Ministerial Segment during the 62nd Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.  The Ministerial Segment is important because in 2009, member states agreed to set 2019 as a target date for eliminating or significantly reducing the scale of the illicit drug market. Since there is no way that this goal will be met within the next six months, the Ministerial Segment will be a critical opportunity for member states to rethink their international drug control goals and create principles that will guide global drug control for the forthcoming decade.

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a coalition of over 150 international organizations calling for drug policy reform, has developed concrete “asks” that aim to focus member states on creating principles that will be rooted in creating an effective and sustainable shift in international drug control policy. Specifically, IDPC has recommended that member states move away from the ‘drug free world’ targets; meaningfully reflect the impacts of drug policies on the UN goals of promoting health human rights, development, peace and security; reflect the realities of drug policies on the ground, both positive and negative; and end punitive approaches and put people and communities first. These key principles will offer member states an opportunity to consider a drug policy regime that is based on achievable and meaningful goals.

This year, events are being planned in cities in dozens of countries across six continents. The action in New York City will unite New Yorkers with those fighting for drug policy reform across the world, in a show of solidarity and to demonstrate the breadth and power of this movement. The “Support Don’t Punish” event in New York City is one of many opportunities for people in the United States to take action and demand better international drug policies. The event serves to memorialize a shifting public voice on how drug use should be dealt with.

As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked to the 27th session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in May: “While each country must decide its own drug policy, I believe there is consensus around the need for a people-centered approach, based on results rather than dogma or prejudice.”

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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