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Will Godfrey Will Godfrey

This Thursday, the World Rises Up Against the War on Drugs

“Support. Don’t punish,” a global day of action on June 26, will demand basic human rights for people who use drugs. Substance.com checks in with activists making plans around the world.

24 Substance

Supporters in New Delhi, India during last year's global day of action. Photo via

Supporters in New Delhi during last year’s global day of action. Photo via

In an unprecedented display of people power against the war on drugs, thousands of activists in 100 cities across the world will rally on Thursday, June 26, to push one message: “Support. Don’t punish.

The concerted campaign will remind national governments and the UN of the growing size and clout of people who use drugs and their supporters as a political constituency—and the futility of pouring billions of dollars into efforts to enforce prohibition.

At least 150 NGOs will be involved worldwide, either as active organizers or as supporters, but the London-based International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) is acting as the hub. Jamie Bridge, the IDPC’s senior policy and operations manager, tells Substance.com that the momentum building behind the day of action is “a sign that people do want to mobilize behind this kind of message.”

The global day of action first took place last year but will more than double in size for 2014, thanks to a more aggressive recruitment policy and the support of big organizations like the New York-based Open Society Foundations. Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a UK organization campaigning for drug policy reform, recalls that last year’s events ranged in scale and scope from “a small number of marginalized drug users in India, standing with signs saying ‘Support. Don’t punish,’ which was deeply moving,” to a “much more elaborate event involving street art and dancers” in Romania.

June 26 is the date because it’s when the UN holds its International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Sickeningly, governments of countries including China and Indonesia have been known to mark the day with the executions and torture of drug offenders. Drug policy reform activists want to reclaim the date. For too long, says Bridge, “governments have taken it upon themselves to celebrate fighting this war on drugs. There’s not a lot to celebrate.”

The organizers designed the campaign to have the best chance of becoming genuinely global. According to Bridge, they “deliberated long and hard” about the wording of “Support. Don’t punish.” Clearly, “Don’t punish” implies decriminalization, but there were fears that repressive governments or cultural taboos might block participation in some countries if this were made explicit. “There’s a very good reason why the title doesn’t mention drugs,” says Bridge—although the campaign is “very much about drug decriminalization” as well as health and social services.

Some planned events stand out for being particularly imaginative. Organizers in Mauritius, for example, will capitalize on World Cup fever by conducting a soccer-victory-style open-top bus parade through several cities, handing out T-shirts.

In other places, what’s noteworthy is the sheer courage of the activists. Bridge names Lebanon and Zimbabwe among the countries he is delighted to see come on board. Activists in Moscow—including Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina of the political punk band Pussy Riot—will brave the wrath of their government by wearing “Support. Don’t Punish” T-shirts as they take a walk through central Moscow. The mobile nature of the protest is designed to reduce the chances of arrest. According to a press release issued by Russian organizers, “Russian drug policy is built on torture—endless humiliation and violation of human dignity and physical punishment.”

Here in New York, a demonstration will take place outside the United Nations building at 2 pm. One important element will be videoing and photographing the protesters: According to Nazlee Maghsoudi of the Harm Reduction Coalition, one of the organizations spearheading this event, the images will be used as part of a worldwide social media drive “to show the momentum” of the campaign.

Allan Clear, the Harm Reduction Coalition’s executive director, says, “Being the home of the UN, it’s really important that New York is involved. Part of our frustration with the UN is that human rights violations are not being criticized in the way they should be by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.” Indeed, earlier this year Yury Fedotov, head of the UNODC, praised Iran’s anti-drug efforts—which include executing many nonviolent offenders—while criticizing Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana.

Sample campaign promotional material

Sample campaign promotional material

Activists around the world agree on the importance of pressuring the UN in advance of the special session on drug policy (UNGASS) due to be held in New York in 2016. Niamh Eastwood says that the UN “tends to criticize anyone who takes a more pragmatic, health-based approach” to drug policy. She adds that the “most alarming” body associated with the UN is the International Narcotics Control Board, “which has a record of condemning countries that pursue any kind of decriminalization.”

Aram Barra, drug policy program director for Espolea in Mexico City, tells Substance.com, “After Mexico’s failed war on drugs was evident, former president Felipe Calderon addressed the UN and joined other countries in the region to call for a global revision of the world consensus on drugs. From this came the approval of UNGASS to take place in 2016. It is crucial that Mexico betters its drug policy before then.”

Mexico, says Barra, “is one of the countries that has taken the [drug] war to its last consequences.” He notes, “Official figures report over 60,000 deaths and 20,000 disappeared people in the period 2006 to 2012.” The country “reports only 1.8% of the population used drugs in the last year, yet sees an average of 15,000 deaths because of its drug policy.”

June 26 will see the launch of a website promoting drug policy reform, featuring video messages of support from Mexican politicians, community leaders, celebrities and academics, as well as wide-ranging resources. “We expect the site to become a central source of information to inform the public debate,” says Barra, and “a virtual forum that follows up on the upcoming hearings on drug policy organized by the National Congress House.” A panel of experts in Mexico City will mark the site’s launch, and Barra expects half a million unique visits over the next month.

Wider involvement in this year’s global event was encouraged by a flexible approach to organization: Materials are online, and any local group can hold an event independently. Messaging on the ground can also meet the specific needs of different countries. For example, some groups in Asia will focus on opposition to drug detention centers. Niamh Eastwood notes that in places like Thailand and Indonesia, “people who use drugs problematically or even non-problematically are subjected to compulsory treatment at so-called treatment centers, which is a human rights abuse.” In France, meanwhile, the focus will be on promoting drug consumption rooms as a lifesaving harm reduction tool.

One of the more far-flung efforts is in Nepal. According to Anan Pun, founder of the country’s Coalition for Health, Human Rights and Harm Reduction, plans include convening a national symposium on drug law reform, a media awareness campaign and demonstrations in Kathmandu and five other cities. People will be encouraged to add their names to lists of supporters and Pun says, “We are expecting more than 10,000 signatures this year.”

Amid all the diversity there is a central theme, too: the need to rebalance global spending away from enforcement. An estimated $100 billion is spent annually on fighting the war on drugs. A key idea this year, says Jamie Bridge, is “10 by 20”—that if just 10% of the planet’s total drug-war spend can be diverted to health and social services instead by 2020, the world will be a much better place.

London will host one of the largest of Thursday’s events. Prominent advertising billboards have been secured to display drug policy reform messages—a medium that should attract serious attention “in places where people are more used to being told to buy make-up,” says Bridge. A giant inflatable billboard will also be deployed outside the Houses of Parliament, along with at least 200 protesters, and a letter demanding change sent to Prime Minister David Cameron. Although names of the signatories have yet to be released, British public figures who have already backed the campaign include Richard Branson and Russell Brand.

Niamh Eastwood, whose organization Release is leading events in London, says, “It’s about humanizing people who use drugs, the vast majority of whom—around 90%—do so non-problematically and are otherwise law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes and contribute to society. The biggest risk to these people is the criminalization of drug use.”

Eastwood adds that most people who use drugs in a problematic way have a history of trauma, abuse or mental illness, and that to criminalize people with such problems is “deeply immoral.”

More details about events around the world on Thursday, June 26, can be found at the campaign website, while the #supportdontpunish Twitter hashtag can be used to track breaking events. If you care about drug laws and the wellbeing of people who use drugs, there’s never been a better time to raise your voice.

Will Godfrey is the editor-in-chief of Substance.com.