“You call each other junkies, so why can’t we adopt the jargon?” our Youth RISE adventures in the 4th Law Enforcement and Public Health Conference

“Aren‘t these simply cases of bad police practice that you have just presented?“ asks an audience member at the 4th Law Enforcement and Public Health conference after the Youth RISE International Coordinator speaks about encounters among police and young people who use drugs from across the world. As the question implies, were we presenting rare, dramatic stories of police harassment and use of violence and intimidation? Unfortunately, no. In many regions of the world where Youth RISE continues to work, frequent police brutality towards young people who use drugs continues to be reported: Pakistan, Indonesia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, Nepal, Ghana, Zimbabwe… you name it!

Youth RISE took part in the conference with two tasks on mind: to consult stakeholders, most of them police, on the guidelines we are currently developing (Guidelines for police on working with young people who use drugs) and get their feedback, and to lead a session on Harm reduction services for young people who use drugs and the role of law enforcement. Neither of these turned out to be easy.

Developing global guidelines means reflecting a wide scale of needs and an even wider one of cultural differences. The “ police should work professionally and ethically“ guideline might be classified as a “common sense“ by some countries, while others may ask to indicate things in a “clearer manner”, including such points as “Police should not use physical force when it is not necessary“. Avoiding age profiling in stop and search practices may be seen as implied in the statement about the professional work of police, whereas other stakeholders may express their wish for it to be a separate point in the guideline. “So how do we make it useful to everyone? What are our next steps to have these guidelines adopted?” these questions were the ones to puzzle us as we collected feedback from 100 stakeholders in the room.

The conference was not attended by many representatives of the community of people who use drugs and Youth RISE remained the only community organisation to hold a session. We talked about police violence towards people who use drugs in Pakistan, the use of young people who use drugs by police as tools to extort money from the youngsters’ families in Indonesia, about widespread intimidation in police practices and age profiling in Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe and other problems in many other countries across the globe. We touched upon harms on youth caused by high visibility policing (such as sniffer dogs) and the need of trauma informed policing. We tried to not only stick to voicing problems of young people who use drugs but review the possibilities of change and the current use of good practices building a better understanding among young people. Although these were not abundant and pessimism prevailed, the messages turned to be invaluable to the conference as a whole: our sessions balanced out some overly Belarus-dictator-like presentations from police themselves, declaring in most self-confident tone of a “Malborough” commercial how great everything back home in their states was and no problems ever existed.

Youth RISE may also have been the only ones to face recommendations to “treat” drug use among spoiled young people who use drugs by the employment of community service, explanations of age profiling as “means to ensure young peoples’ who use drugs own safety “ and arguments in defence of the inadequate language used by police “because you call each other junkies, so why can’t we adopt the jargon?”. Each and every time we learn and can be better prepared to counter the misconceptions, myths and stigmatising views. Every time we have an opportunity to provide food for thought to those defending prohibition.

Having returned from Toronto and looking back we can say, that participation in the 4th Law Enforcement and Public Health conference was immensely valuable to Youth RISE. This was a unique and incredibly enriching opportunity to see the situation form another, opposite side of barricades, to feel that not all police officers are villains, and to say that not all young people who use drugs are spoiled little f*ckers. Cooperation can really be achieved!