Side Event: Saving Lives by Ending the Drug War

Panel: Ann Fordham, Brun González, Jane Slater, Jindřich Vobořil, Mary Catherine Alvarez, Maricela Orozco Montalvo, Suzanne Sharkey, Peter Muyshondt

Jindřich Vobořil: Welcome to our event. I am the National Drug Coordinator for the Czech Republic. We combined different ways of approaching this issue. We will start with some real life stories first of all.

 Jane Slater: We are here with Anyone’s Child. We are a network of families whose lives have been destroyed and are now calling for legal regulation of drugs. We will strike a very different and hard hitting tone here today. Let’s start with Peter.

Peter Muyshondt: I am a senior police officer in Belgium and 11 years ago my brother died of a overdose. My brother was a problematic heroin user. In Belgium when you facilitate drug-use you are at risk to being convicted yourself – so I had to kick my brother out to protect myself from prosecution. It was very difficult to live with this as a policeman. He died because of the drug laws we have now.

Suzanne Sharkey: I’m also an ex-police officer. I joined the police to seek justice and protect the community I lived in. I also worked as an undercover buyer. I am also in recovery for alcohol and other drugs, and I’m lucky to be here today. I have been in various rehabs, arrested, admitted to hospital. There is a sense of guilt, stigma and shame. Over 9 years ago I woke in hospital again thinking “how am I alive”. The police and criminalisation didn’t help me, it only stigmatised me, making me to feel like a really bad person. I got recovery from people I had around me – they supported me and showed me that recovery is possible. As I reflect on my time in the police, I feel shame – I was arresting poor people. I tried to make the world better, but all that work made no difference. One of the biggest barriers to recovery are current drug policies – all it does is create harm. We are only punishing people for being born into poverty. I am speaking for those who are no longer with us. I ask that its time to end this war.

Maricela: I am here because i suffered the kidnapping of my son almost 3 years ago when they also killed my other son. My son went missing because of the militarisation of Mexican drug policies. There are government and non-government officials involved in this and covering up the evidence in this case. Finding my son was the result of families looking for missing persons. There were awful things done to cover this up. When my son was found in the grave – there were 208 other people found in the same grave – the judge has rejected these denunciations. When Felipe Calderón declared the war on drugs there was a rise in missing people and murders of young people. Even when young people use drugs, they do not deserve to be killed. When I was looking for my son I looked through so many jails – I could see how jails are full of young people arrested for non-violent offences related to drugs. The war on drugs doesn’t protect our youth it puts them at more risk – its urgent that we look for alternatives.

Mary Catherine Alvarez (Philippines): I don’t have a family member that was killed, but you don’t need to be related to feel for them. We have had punitive drug laws in the Philippines since the 1970’s. But in 2016 we elected a president running on an anti-drugs campaign. When telling stories, I don’t know where to start because there are just too many. I will tell 3 – one for each year the president has been in power. The first is Danica Mae, she was 5 years old. She was just taking a bath when caught in the crossfire  she will be forever 5. In August 2017 we found Kian Lloyd – police officers were documented as dragging Kian Lloyd and begging for his life, though police deny this. He was just 17. And just this year, John is a Lawyer and was shot. He was just doing his job when defending a ‘drug personality’, but in the Philippines it shows a strong message to lawyers not to defend drug users when you could be killed yourself. The murders victimise the poor, but also target lawyers and judges. Anyone could be target, including me. It has created a chilling effect. The irony is there is no clear data on how many people have been killed. The number of people killed in ‘legitimate’ cases is over 3,000. But you will see 16,000 homicides ‘under investigation’ since the president took office. The way I see it, punitive drug laws are being used to justify government sponsored murder. It has made people think of drug use as ‘evil’ and an atmosphere of stigma. I hope it will stop, but there is no sign of it stopping.

Jane: I urge you to look at the Anyone’s Child campaign when going into these meetings

Jindřich Vobořil: These stories affect me so much, so it’s difficult to continue. In the Czech Republic we are trying to liberalise drug policies. When we did it we were warned of disaster and death, but the opposite happened. We managed to encourage people with problematic drug use to come forward and ask for help. The the Hepatitis C rate dropped from 50% to 17%. Prisons are not overcrowded. We still have quite punitive laws (in my view), and prohibition is still there, and a small amount of drugs can lead to a criminal penalty. We have proof that decriminalisation works. Let me share on example: 10 years ago we introduced buprenorphine. People would not overdose on this drug. We put minimum restrictions on it – all GPs can prescribe it. Heroin users dropped to just 4,000. When we introduced buprenorphine, we learned that the regular heroin users preferred the legal, regulated substance. Recently we decided to look at all drug policies together – the numbers show that legal drug policies actually work! Tobacco is going down – it’s restricted, but its a restriction based on the market. This is one of the ideas that we can take from the evidence. Looking at different policies and different approaches. We are obliged to research them.

Ann Fordham: It is incredibly sobering to hear the stories of my other panellists. We don’t hear them enough and policy decisions happen in this vacuum of the realities on the ground. Kofi Anan has spoken out against current drug polices, and he is now on the GCDP where he said “wrong government polices have destroyed more lives than drugs themselves”. The UN Commission on Human Rights spoke out against the human right abuses committed in the name of the ‘war on drugs’. I will talk about decriminalisation and what to do next. Decriminalisation is very important and a feasible next step. It’s not new to remove criminal penalties for the use and possession of drugs. It’s distinct from legal regulation, but decriminalisation is about not punishing people for using drugs. Some 27 countries have enacted some form of decriminalisation – Norway & Ireland are in serious discussion. The Czech Republic, Portugal have already done it. There is so much evidence that shows the harm of criminalisation – it limits access to services, drives stigma, users are unable to come forward for health services. In addition if you criminalise people and drug use it does no deter people from using drugs. If it did work, you would expect the countries with the toughest laws would also have the lowest levels of drug use – but they don’t. Many UN agencies call for decriminalisation in submissions to the UNGASS. Removing punishment needs to extend to administrative sanctions. The gold standard of decriminalisation would be to remove all punishment – both criminal and administrative. This of course doesn’t resolves the drug market issues.

Brun González: It is important to remember the communities in Mexico who developed their entire world view around drugs. The first to mention is mescalin. You cans see the richness and depth that is linked to this ‘altered state’ I work with INPUD. We can see this statue of a shaman surrounded by plants – showing that people for thousands of years people have used symbols as communication. Our worldview is driven by this as well as our dream-view (something we go through every night). It is deeply embedded in traditional cultures in Mexico, and we are not integrating it in our policy-making internationally. Heroin is present and produced in Mexico. We don’t think about the positive aspects of these drugs in terms of culture and tradition. The best way to honour those how have died in the drug war is to end it.


Russian Harm Reduction Association – We have drug users who need to pay too much money to access treatment. Our government thinks oppressive policies work. You are ahead of us with polices, but how can we catch up with you?
Jindřich Vobořil: There is no simple answer, but there are tools we can use. We need to be active in politics. Personal stories are something that we can present to the media and the public. And then there’s evidence – we have enough evidence. Many governments don’t want to listen to this, some of them abuse the situation for their own agendas but we have to reveal it and speak the truth. It’s important to create coalitions. After UNGASS we heard about people being killed in the Philippines just months afterwards, so when I feel things moving forward something happens to set it back. But remember when things go wrong, there will always be progress.

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