A side event organised by the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and the Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health called “Police Statement of Support for Drug Policy Reform” introduced the perspective of experienced policemen who through their work understood the harsh consequences of the current drug policy system. Speakers at the panel were Peter Muyshondt, Neil Woods, Suzanne Sharkley, and Ron Hogg.
The representatives called for acceptance of harm reduction, decriminalization and regulation. They pointed out the constant increase of drug use, increase of the amount of black market money (“multi-billion business”) and also the increasing level of violence related to the war on drugs – the main factors that our current drug policy is actually supporting instead of helping to decrease them.
Among other mentioned proposals, the statements were supporting of substance analysis programs, introduction & spreading of naloxone among police officers and also full decriminalization of people who use drugs.
“The only people who are actually regulating the black market are the organised crime groups – setting up the prices, the level of quality etc…”
The Police Statement of Support for Drug Policy Reform was presented by Neil Woods who also stated that: “With current policies we are making the drug lords (gangsters) really happy.”
It was also discussed that the repressive policies implemented have absolutely no impact and in fact are causing mental health problems to the police officers who are conscious about the negative aspects of the policies.
Peter Muyshondt, who is a regional chief of police in Belgium and who lost a brother on heroin overdose, pointed out the difference in opinions and recommendations from people who have had personal experience in viewing the harm of the war on drugs when compared to police officers and policy makers who view it as just another part of their job. He also stated that “The position of drug in the hands of criminals makes them even more dangerous.” Isn’t it time to change that?
While the Philippines proceed with extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs, youth activists continue to protest against these atrocities. We, the youth organizations, remonstrate by lying on the floor of the Rotunda – the UN exhibition space – where this year, the Philippines occupy a space where they display posters promoting their brutal and violent approach to the War on Drugs. Welcome to the 2019 Commission on Narcotic Drugs Ministerial Segment.
The UN is a symbol of humanity’s progress, where learning to solve problems and opinion differences can be achieved without waging war. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is an event which embodies this progress, where the costs of this evolution can be felt almost physically. The costs are represented by President Duterte’s posters in the headquarters of the UN, the very institution which has expressed its “deep concern” over the genocide of people who use drugs in the Philippines. Differences in opinion are illustrated by the different policies and views on drugs by countries such as the Philippines and Canada. The stark differences between the approaches of these two countries while they still maintain their attempts to achieve a consensus gives an insight into how slow the progress tends to be at the UN. That is before even considering the agendas of the many other countries attempting to influence the drug policy control system.
The second and final day of the Ministerial Segment has concluded. So, what has changed after the 193 delegates have delivered their speeches and attended numerous round tables and side events? To evaluate the level of progress would require analysis of all the speeches of delegates over a span of at least a decade. This analysis is beyond the scope of this text. However, we can share some observations.
All countries use buzz words in their speeches. For example, some phrases used by almost all countries to define their approach included “evidence-based”, “effective” and “health-centred”. Whereas their outcomes and results were commonly referred to as “measured” and “evaluated”. Taking off the diplomatic mask, two opposing approaches can be identified. Firstly, the fear of cracks appearing in the consolidated (but outdated) approach. Secondly, securing the right to individualism (whether in direction of brutality or liberalism).
The position of Russia and Singapore demonstrate the fear countries have of cracks appearing in the approach. The speeches of these countries were full of words representing the idealistic view of a drug-free world (“what world do we want? One where people die of drug overdose? Or one free of drugs, where we all thrive?”), as well as focusing on war (“fight”, “win”, “defeat”, “war on drugs”, “war on narcotic evil/tyranny”, “getting rid of this plague”), demonization of drugs (“narcotic hell”, “evil”, “tyranny”, “drugs destroy lives”, “prevention saves from pain”), and control (“implement tough laws”, “keep drugs away”, “it is now a crime in Singapore to allow young people to use”, “it is now a crime to introduce a trafficker to another person”). These countries are clearly in favour of outdated conventions (“conventions must stay as engraved in stone”, “multilateralism is necessary”, “problems cannot be solved unilaterally”, “established consensus”, “we must not waver or lose time renegotiating”, “act within conventions”, “collectively”).
The approach of Vietnam and Bolivia demonstrates the shift in focus to the sovereignty of countries policies. The language that was used included “non-interference”, “sovereignty”, “policies must correspond to the domestic circumstances”, “the drug laws were imposed by the U.S.”, “we decided to develop our own model” and “true, dignified, sovereign manner of drug policy”. However, the approaches that underpin the desire for sovereignty can vary considerably, and this sovereignty is not always a positive thing. While Bolivia comes to CND annually to present their success achieved through coca leaf regulation, which was implemented through a temporary breakaway from international treaties, Vietnam refers to “drug-free Asia”, “harm reduction through law enforcement” and “drug-free region”. The latter position becomes problematic when followed by language such as “tough laws”, “crime”, “abusers” and “rehab-strengthening with implementation of a post-release support and supervision”, used by other Asian countries.
Considering the approaches outlined above, noticeable regional differences remain: i) South America rejects the devastating policies of war on drugs; ii) Asia keeps following the control and violence path, iii) many Western countries talk about a health-centred approach; and iv) Africa seems to be at the crossroads between the two approaches.
Taken together, there were many positives from the 2019 CND Ministerial Segment, which include: i) Civil Society firmly maintaining their position as an equal partner by giving an opening speech and participating in multiple side events; Youth RISE International Coordinator presenting at the side event organised by the Norwegian government; and iii) the director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) speaking in the panel launching UNAIDS international guidelines on human rights and drug policy. These positives illustrate how activists continue to fly the flags high. Let’s hope that humanity remains determined to progress.
“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!
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 ofproblems 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
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.
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.