“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!

The courtesy of Jurek Badman

Drug policies of the 21st century remain focused on repressive approaches in most of the world’s countries. This can make it harder, if not impossible, to progressively intervene regarding psychoactive substance use, preventing possible benefits to public health. Results of more than half a century of repressive (although slightly milder currently in the Czech Republic) policies do not show themselves to be effective. In fact, it’s the opposite. Experts specializing in harm reduction have been calling for more liberal policies for years. Combined with access to verified information and a unified prevention system, they believe such policies would lead to general reduction of problems associated with substances classified as psychoactive – these include the criminalization of users and of possession, substance impurities, and a lack of available harm reduction services. Trust in the state apparatus regarding this issue allows the users to behave responsibly, consult their use and not endanger themselves or others with risky behavior.

If we take a rational look at the topic, we need to admit that there are people around us who use mind-altering substances. These people use them despite the illegality or possible negative impact on their mental or physical health. The “products” they are using are non regulated, black market “goods” very often “labeled” as something it actually is not. The substances’ potential negative effects are not the only way in which the users can harm themselves. Black market psychoactives are not subject to any regulations and are often made with the use of amateur processes and equipment. It comes as no surprise that these products often contain not only the active ingredient itself, but also contain other admixtures, fillers or left-over chemicals needed for production. These can often have worse effects on human health than the actual psychoactive substance. In some cases, application of such undesirable elements might have fatal consequences. Replacing one substance with another can also be dangerous – with the devastating fentanyl epidemic in the US being living proof. Substance analysis programs give an opportunity to take responsibility for own actions in regards of at least knowing what you are using. 

Ask yourself, would you drink beer from a bottle without a label? Would you take the risk of, say, methanol being in there?

Samples from the “on set testing” / The courtesy of Jurek Badman

Drug Czeching 

In the Czech Republic legal issues forced the closure of the substance analysis program almost ten years ago. Currently, the question of potential support of such programs had been brought up by the National Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction. Inspired by good practice from abroad, based on evidence, government buddies are discussing (behind the closed doors) how to possibly implement this approach into our pedantic system?

The Youth RISE Czech team had decided to call for a public forum/discussion on the International Day of Drug Abuse (26.6. 2018), and the Support. Don’t Punish campaign, so this topic could be openly discussed in a safe and not conflicted space. The invitation was accepted by the head of National Monitoring Centre MUDr. Viktor Mravčík, head of the National Anti-drug Central Mgr. Jakub Frydrych, head of the 3rd Faculty of Medicine, pharm. Magdalena Šustková, drug policy/harm reduction consultant of the municipality in Brno Mgr. Jakub Černý and two foreign guests pharmacologist from Germany pharm. Tibor Harrach and drug policy activist and Youth RISE Mexico coordinator Brun González.

The public forum called “Drug Czeching“, aimed to introduce the aforementioned topics to the greater public. We believed that the time had come to address this topic and give space to experts and people with various perspectives to discuss it publicly.

The main question was clear: Can we, together, find a way to safely and implement approaches which had been proven effective abroad already?

The whole discussion was recorded and soon will be available to your own consideration.

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Muyshondt

Born in 1971, I can hardly be considered a youngster. So you can imagine my surprise when Youth Rise asked me to write an article.

I don’t know a lot about drugs. I drink alcohol from time to time, but that’s basically the extent of my experience. When it comes to the effects of drugs, I am a novice. But if you ask my opinion about drug policy, I am resolute. Prohibition is the worst kind of policy possible.

I have been serving as a police officer for more than twenty years now, and I have fought the drug-war on the front lines. I have dealt directly with the public disorder caused by drug addiction. As a criminal investigator, a leader of special forces and a local chief of police, I have arrested dealers, carried out raids on stash-houses, and been involved in shootings.

I loved that kind of police work, though it could be difficult and frustrating. Surveilling boats carrying bananas and bricks of South American cocaine, hoping for some dealers to appear and pick up the precious cargo, or following criminal targets for days without any result. At times it could be awfully boring, but we made a decent living out of it. The times we could intervene and arrest the bad guys, we knew it was worth the effort, and we forgot about the endless hours of watching nothing.

I had entered the military at 15 and was trained in the military academy, and later by the special forces of the Belgian police. I was a good soldier, loyal to my government. I didn’t consciously reflect on our actions. I was convinced that we were making the world a better place by chasing down drug dealers who sold dirty dope to young people. I believed our tactics saved these young people from addiction’s trap. And then the enemy hit home. My brother died of an overdose at 28 years old. He started smoking joints at 14, and ended up with a needle in his arm, using heroin, cocaine, alcohol and prescription medications.

One of the principal arguments to defend prohibition is the protection of young people. Any liberal drug policy would cause a lot of harm to the youth.

I believe this is false and naive. It wasn’t policy alone that killed my brother, but it certainly played a part.

Young people want to experiment. I surely did myself, thirty years ago. So why would things have changed ? Let’s face reality. Young people will experiment, with drugs or with specific behaviors. It doesn’t matter what they experiment with. What should matter is that this experimental behavior is discouraged – yes, we don’t need to promote experimental behaviors or drug-use – but if it occurs, we must try to ensure it does so in safe circumstances, to both avoid accidents and prevent harm. Current prohibition all but ensures that this cannot happen. Drug-dealers are in the business of money: they couldn’t care less about the health of the young people using their drugs.

I recently received a call from a friend whose son was asked by a supposed friend to sell cannabis. My friend’s son, who is 14 years old, was thrilled. What an excitement. Doing illegal things. Selling cannabis. Damn. What a kick. Take that society!

My friend asked my advice. Being a police officer, I might have reacted with the blunt logic of prohibition. I could have said, ‘Give me the name of your son’s friend and we will hunt him down and arrest him. He is a drug dealer and must be stopped.’

But I didn’t tell him that. I asked him to talk to him, and explain the risks of his behavior. If he got caught, it could jeopardize his future. Is it worth risking your future for a few euros and a dose of adrenaline?

Imagine if cannabis was sold in a shop, well regulated with qualified staff. No one would be asking impressionable young people to deal cannabis. It would be laughable, on par with the notion of dealing alcohol on the street. Why buy unattributed legal wares from a guy on the corner when the corner store behind him sells name-brand quality?

Will drug use rise when it is legally regulated ? Perhaps slightly, but over the long term, evidence suggests not. Will there be drug problems in a society that regulates them? Yes, definitely. But the more negative consequences of prohibition would disappear. Drugs would be sold in licensed shops, their quality tested. The illegal market’s persistent strive for more potent drugs not yet included on the schedules of international drug conventions would halt. Drugs would no longer be adulterated with extremely dangerous contaminants.

The illicit world can be craven and horrifying, but it also holds intrigue. It is a rebellious underground, disapproved by the establishment. For a wayward youth, it can appear exciting, promising the thrill of the forbidden, its corrosive qualities not apparent at first. If we are to de-glamourise drug use and make it patently uncool, then we must first make drugs themselves uncool; another product in a shop. If our policy makers really want to protect young people and protect public health, they must urgently reconsider their current destructive policies. As both a police officer and the brother of a victim of addiction, and unlike a lot of the bureaucrats sitting in huge meeting rooms at the United Nations, I have seen the costs and devastation of prohibition first-hand. Invest in harm reduction and prevention and things will be better. Trust me on this. I know what I am talking about.

 

Take care and be safe!

 

Peter Muyshondt

Anyone’s Child

LEAP