By Marya Pasciuto
For decades, government policies against drugs have created problematic situations in virtually every corner of the world, from cartel warfare to rampant incarceration. For many citizens and advocacy organizations, the war on drugs has created more problems than solutions.
On June 26, 2014, citizens of 80 cities across the globe will take to social media, press rooms, and the streets in a joint day of protest declared by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) against the war on drugs. From Nairobi to Rome, hundreds of individual organizations and cities have stepped up to plan their own demonstrations.
As each nation has its own nuanced perspective and experience with the war on drugs, each protest has its own focus and reasons for participating. By participating in a worldwide protest, however, all of the organizations stand as one and become a formidable force against outdated government drug policies gone awry.
World Policy Journal reached out to leaders of war on drugs protests on three continents to provide a sampling of the different campaigns around the world:
Fifa Rahman, policy manager at the Malaysian AIDS Council, explained the plans for the day of protest in Kuala Lumpur. The protest will involve various events including a press conference in the morning and a music and cultural festival in the afternoon. The conference, featuring key experts such as Adeeba Kamarulzaman from the Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA), Datuk Raj Karim, president of the Malaysian AIDS Council, and Razali Ayub from the Welfare Association of Recovering Drug Users, will serve to educate participants on a more academic level about the shortcomings of the war on drugs.
The festival, which will take place at Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market, will draw crowds sympathetic to the cause. After the cultural event, participants will spread informational flyers until the end the day in order to raise awareness of the anti-drug-war cause.
Kuala Lumpur’s advocates face opposition from bureaucrats who seek to reverse progressive voluntary treatment measures, which would undo much of the council’s work. According to Rahman, compulsory treatment “inevitably involves the police and drug treatment authorities working together to arrest,” which creates distrust between drug users and authority figures. The protests seek to draw attention to—and prevent—this potential setback.
Another important issue is the presence of death penalties for drug possession in Malaysia’s justice system, which fails to address the true source of the nation’s drug problems and perpetuates the mistreatment of Malaysia’s poor. “The majority of persons sentenced to death for drugs are poor people, while the kingpins are above reproach,” says Rahman. Opponents of the war on drugs in Malaysia seek to do away with these appallingly harsh and ineffective death penalties.
Malaysia also suffers from a dearth of concrete, written drug laws rooted in evidence; Rahman hopes to incorporate evidence-based measures into a clear drug policy to effect real and lasting change.
Aram Barra, Drug Policy Program director at Espolea, illustrated Mexico City’s situation with the war on drugs. Their protest’s overarching goal is to educate and unite the public when it comes to Mexico’s inadequate drug policy—over 30 different Mexican organizations created a microsite focusing on reasons the nation’s drug policy must change.
According to Barra, “The launch of the microsite includes video-capsules recorded especially for the campaign with representations from public figures of politics, private enterprises, social leaders and people from the entertainment world in Mexico,” and it will be projected publicly on June 26.
Of course, Mexico is intimately connected to the war on drugs. Barra shares some shocking statistics: over 60,000 deaths and 20,000 disappearances were reported from 2006-2012. Many of these deaths and disappearances can likely be attributed to cartel activity and other drug-affiliated issues. More recent figures show that Mexico “reports 1.8 percent of the population used drugs in the last year, yet sees an average of 15,000 deaths because of its drug policy,” indicating that the war on drugs has only exacerbated Mexico’s drug-related suffering.
Mexico is, however, seeking change: former president Felipe Calderon joined other nations in the region in calling upon the United Nations to change the world’s drug policies. There will be a UN special assembly on drugs in New York in 2016, and according to Barra, “It is crucial that Mexico betters its drug policy before then.”
In the meantime, Mexico’s views on drug policy have been slowly evolving; measures include supporting the Group of Latin America (GRULAC) in an effort to change society’s perceptions of drugs and drug users. “While much remains to be done, Mexico is today walking in the right path regarding its foreign policy position on the subject,” says Barra.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, explained London’s part in the protest. Release will put on a demonstration outside of the UK Parliament that will focus on the global ‘Support Don’t Punish’ campaign. The organization will also write a letter to the Prime Minister calling for policy reform and meaningful participation at the 2016 UN drug summit. Social media will also play a role in the protest: the organization’s website, talkingdrugs.org, features an option for site visitors to tweet their commitment to the campaign and demonstrate the gravity of the issue to political leaders in the UK.
On a national level, protesters in the UK aim to illuminate the issues that drug criminalization has created and to transition to non-criminal sanctions for all drug users. According to Eastwood, 1.5 million criminal records have been recorded in the past 15 years as a result of drug possession, primarily cannabis, in England and Wales.
This harsh punishment for minor drug offenses creates a cultural stigma against drug users and makes it more difficult for users to seek education or employment. Release and LSE have also demonstrated that the nation’s current drug laws lend themselves to racism through disproportionate stops and searches for black and Asian people in England and Wales.
Current drug laws in the UK allow for mass searches of certain communities, which allow for racist police practices—“in London for example drugs searches make up 60 percent of all stop and searches,” according to Eastwood. Ending criminal sanctions for minor drug possession could reduce if not end these questionable searches and prevent the stigma against drug users.
Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City, and London are joined by dozens of other cities in 2014's Day of Action. To explore some of the other participating cities, check out this interactive map:
Marya Pasciuto is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photos courtesy of IPDC]