Side event: How can we make the International drug control system better protect our youth?

Panel: Jane Slater (Anyone’s Child/Transform Drug Policy Foundation), Peter Muyshondt (Anyone’s Child), Fiona Gilbertson (Anyone’s Child/Recovering Justice), Inez Feria, Murtaza Majeed, Donna May (Anyone’s Child/mumsDU)

Watch the video of the event onAnyone’s Child website

Jane Slater: These are the real people who are being impacted by our policies. I think there is a lot of evidence that drug policy isn’t working, but we need to change hearts and minds on this.

Peter Muyshondt: Ladies and gentlemen,

Every week I take young people who have been fighting their drug addiction out to go climbing. Sometimes, one of them relapses. Like Kevin. Kevin was abandoned by his parents when he was 4 years old. He started using all kind of drugs when he was a teenager. He’s actually on crack and dreaming of becoming a soldier. He wants to be a legionnaire in the French army.

In 1995 I ended my army training to become an officer in the federal police. At that time the federal police was still a part of the military.

I have been serving as a police officer for more then 20 years now and I have fought the drug war on the front line. As a criminal investigator, as leader of special forces and as a local chief of police. I have arrested dealers, done raids on drug houses and have been involved in shootings. I had to deal with public disorder caused by drug addicts.

I loved that kind of police work. Sometimes it was hard and annoying. Watching a boat with bananas and a load of cocaine from South America hoping for some dealers to come out and pick up the precious cargo, following criminal targets for days without any result… It could be terribly boring but we made a good living out of it. The times we could intervene and arrest the bad guys, it was worth the effort and we forgot about the endless hours of watching nothing.

I didn’t think. I didn’t reflect on our actions. My brother was still alive and kicking. I was convinced that we were making the world a better place by chasing down drug dealers who sold the messy and dirty dope to young people who would become addicted to it.

I saw quite a lot of good policemen crossing the line in order to get easy money too. One of the policemen who was my mentor during the first operational internship during instruction got arrested with a few kilo’s of coke. We did the arrest, a few years later. After watching a banana-boat for days. He wanted to collect the coke and we arrested him and confiscated the coke.

We definitely fought the war on drugs. I entered the military system when I was only 15 years old and got trained in the military academy and later by the special forces of the Belgian police. I was a good soldier, well trained and loyal to my government. And then the enemy hit in my most intimate circle. My brother died doing an overdose when he was 28 years old. He started by smoking a joint when he was 14 and ended up with a needle in his arm, using heroine, cocaine, alcohol and legal medication.

One could imagine that I would start fighting this war with even more vigilance. Not me. It just didn’t make any sense. Why didn’t this drug policy I had been defending for years and years work? My brother just died!

Where did this policy come from? Who had once decided that this was the right way to act? What are the objectives of this policy?

I had so many questions and so little answers, except the classical ones: ‘Drugs are forbidden and dangerous. Look at your brother. Drugs killed him.’

Complete nonsense of course. It wasn’t only the drugs that killed him. It was policy. And our negligence.

According to this punitive policy, Kevin – the guy I take out climbing – is a criminal. A 4 year old child, abandoned by his own father and placed at a foster family that doesn’t love him but hit him with a belt instead. Kevin starts taking drugs to feel better. He is not happy. Let’s arrest him and he will feel better.

If my brother was from Switzerland, he could have been helped with Heroine Assisted Treatment (HAT) and have a kind of normal life with a normal relationship with his brother. Being a policeman, I wouldn’t have to face all those dilemmas. Knowing that my brother did commit crime in order to finance his addiction, brought me more times than once into a very difficult position.

If my brother wasn’t labelled a criminal, he would still be alive and I wouldn’t be speaking here in front of you right now.

Thank you.

Fiona: My name is Fiona Gilbertson. I am here on behalf of Recovering Justice. We are people in recovery from substance use who believe that the criminalisation of people who use drugs is inhumane ineffective, counterproductive and costly.

Backed by international evidence and informed by personal experience we will work towards a policy position which treats people with compassion and understanding rather than punishment.

  • Campaign to promote the voice of peace in the war on drugs by survivors with lived experience
  • Act as a bridge between the recovery community and the drug policy reform movement
  • Create broad coalitions and strong partnerships for policy change

For us it was important to know the problem fully before we could look for a solution, when we are trying to change our current drug laws where did they come from and what motivated them.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s adviser is quoted as saying: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The war on drugs, for its architects was never about drugs, need to be aware of this when we talk about the unintended consequences… they were not unintended!

I am a former problematic drug user, every time you met someone in recovery there are at least ten whom you will never see.  Before their deaths they will have been arrested more times than they were offered help, have spent time in prison than rehab or recovery, they will have been stigmatised and ostracised and most likely been told there is no funding when they asked for help.

They will have died from preventable diseases, preventable overdoses, hopelessness and suicide. In ‘The House I live In’ David Simon said the drug war was a holocaust in slow motion, that was 10 years ago, toady it is no longer in slow motion. So what is my story? The drug war was at its height in the 80s when I was an IV heroin user. Drugs were public enemy no 1 and the ‘just say no’ campaign was in full swing. The response to the problem was driven by the media: send them all to an island in the firth of forth. Police response threaten every chemist who was selling clean needles with closure and arrest. The law was interpreted in such a way that having a syringe could get a three month jail term. There was no methadone program no detox or rehab. Policy was focused on eradicating drug users rather than drugs, evidenced on the focus on street level user. This hard line approach drove people further underground, creating shooting galleries where one needle would be used by dozens of people. By the 1990s Edinburgh was known as the AIDS capital of Europe between 50 to 60% of the community had contracted HIV compared to 9% in Glasgow which had adopted a harm reduction approach.

So let’s be clear, I am a person with a substance misuse issue, for me drugs were always going to have consequences. However my friends who died in their 20s in Edinburgh died of AIDS not drugs, they died as a direct consequence of poor policy driven by fear and ignorance my past does not define me so why am I talking about history now.

I t makes me sad and angry that 30 years on this is still going on Today in Russia there are over a million cases of HIV There are few treatment options and people are being treated the same way we were 30 years ago What is the alternative what would real surrender look like? Switzerland had the same issues facing Scotland in the 1900’s – instead of abandoning PWUD Ruth Dreifuss made this statement, ‘You are responsible for all your citizens. There is no group you can abandon.’

She instigated the set up of HAT setting up clinics in cities and two in prisons. Ruth refused to give in to fear of public perception or to fight and instead found a peaceful solution based in human rights for all and compassion, this is legalised heroin! Recovering Justice advocate for a regulated and controlled drug market the drug war globally has caused more damage than drugs ever have Evidence shows that the chances of surviving and getting into recovery are fundamentally linked to policy. If you are a person who uses drugs where would you choose to be living right now Russia or Switzerland? If you are working with PWUD where would you choose to practice Russia or Switzerland? If you are a parent or family member of a PWUD where would you want them to live Russia or Switzerland? There is overwhelming evidence to show the damage. If this war was going to be ended on evidence alone it would have been over a long time ago Like every other social justice issue the stories of people most affected will be key to changing public perception.

Recovery is an emerging vibrant social movement and we believe that our voices can speak truth to power and be heard. Recovery is not about the absence of drugs but the presence of community it is estimated that there are 200,00 people in the UK alone in Recovery, we VOTE. We know the power of sharing experience strength and hope. 40 years after Nixon set out to disrupt social justice movements we see grassroots movements flourishing. Drug policy reform is not fundamentally about drugs. Like all human rights movements before it’s about freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from stigma and discrimination, freedom from criminalisation and incarceration. It is first and foremost a movement for peace.

Donna: I am the Canadian arm of Anyone’s Child. My advocacy began out of ignorance really. I am the mother of a child who died out of substance misuse. I played a critical role in my daughter’s addiction and eventual situation where she died out of that addiction. It was my opportunity to learn from her about addiction.

For her, drug use began as something fun, like I would have a glass of wine. She was prescribed because of an accidence, Oxycotin, but when the doctor cut her off she ended up on Fentanyl. I am faced with parents every day who are either struggling with their child’s substance use, or have a child who has died because of substance use. They see substance use as a bad thing. I now see substance use as a normal thing – we all do things to comfort us. You can walk your child through their addiction, or through their substance use. There is the oppotunity to become addicted but it’s not inevitable by any means. Parents can be taught about drug use and when they may need to help their child.

I have seen Canada go from no harm reduction, to allowing me to go and get some Naloxone and be trained how to do it, and we have SIFs. We have had so many things implemented since I began being an activist. I thought we were done. Now we face a crisis – Fentanyl analogues are making it too dangerous for anyone to take drugs, and they are flooding the market. I had a colleague who died of an overdose because even the safe and wary approach he took to drugs was not enough with the new market.

The families that began to call me were middle and upper class families. We’re talking about well-educated children, well brought up children who have had every opportunity going out and dying from taking an overdose. The families were shocked to learn that even things like marijuana were laced with Fentanyl analogs. I am a lay person – not trained in law at all. Yet these people would contact me and ask me how we can keep children safe. The next step, and only step, in saving the lives of our children is to regulate drugs like we regulate tobacco and alcohol. Otherwise we are not going to be able to protect our children.

There is a hole in my heart left by my daughter that will never be mended, but I am going to work hard at this because we are going to have more of the same if we do not listen to people experiencing these policies.

Anyone’s Child Philippines Member: I have some anecdotes. There were two people in a house playing billiards. The police came in and said, ‘Where are the drugs?’ They said there were no drugs. They were handcuffed with barbed wire. They could not find any drugs. The police shot them, one person played dead which is why we know this story now. Another person there pleaded, ‘Don’t kill me, I have a family’. He was shot in the head. The police are supposed to protect them but now they are part of this. The survivor used to be a vegetable seller and now he cannot do that.

Inez: It doesn’t make sense why these lives can be seen as so lacking in value. We hear about the deaths, but think of the emotional and psychological deaths suffered by the wives and siblings and friends of these people. The people feel abandoned by a government which promised change. If these are supposed to be policies which help, they are just making the situation worse. This has never been about drugs, this is a war against people. Our own drug law speaks of safeguarding well being of citizenry, this is what we should actually do. There is such a disconnect.

Murtaza: My original story was about my cousin, a person I didn’t like at all as a drug user until I started working in harm reduction. There are many stories, just last year I had two friends die – one from heroin and one from alcohol and methamphetamine. Drugs are widely available and we have x people dying of overdose in Afghanistan. Most children use drugs, most are hooked on heroin and now most use meth. There are many problems. There is as a result of this drug use lots of sexual abuse in the country.

Question: Peter, how has your view been influenced by your profession?

Peter: I am lucky to have high rank, however there have been movements made to shut my mouth in Belgium. There are lots of people who are like me and think like me in justice, but they do not want to speak out. Drug policy is the core of my colleagues life, it is annoying that I am coming out against drugs which they fight against.

Comment: These are important stories from the Phillipines. And thank you all for sharing your difficult stories.

Jane: It is important to hear these stories. Please visit the Anyone’s Child website for more human stories of those affected by the drug war.

Question: Fiona, it is often assumed that the recovery community are anti-drug – what kind of response have you had from the wider community?

Fiona: We live in the North-East of England – we do not have treatment services. We organised walks and among those walking, there were about fifty law cases and only a handful of cases where people had been offered treatment.

Steve Rolles (Transform Drug Policy Foundation): I have found those in recovery to be hostile to regulation before so I was nervous to go on one of these walks. Actually, people listened and I was made to feel welcome. I don’t have a personal story – only policy solutions to these problems and trials people face. I was saying also, ‘Why are we criminalising people who have health issues? We don’t do that anywhere else.’ And this was well received. It felt to me that there was an appetite in the recovery community for discourse on this. People in recovery can be very effective advocates, like you.

Fiona: There is a community of people there who can be a force in this fight.

Question: I know Donna has successfully engaged our government. Do you have any advice? Also, it is absolutely heartbreaking to hear from the Philippines and thank you so much, what more can I say.

Donna: It was only because my daughter was dying that I was forced to consider what my lack of action had done to her. Just because she was a mother, I considered my job done. Really your job as a parent is never done – sometimes you can’t see this until there is a crisis in their life. What I would suggest is, be open to seeing things through another lens.

You never know what could happen to people who are using substances, they’re doing something dangerous. I personally sit with people who use to monitor them and help them if they need it. These things should not have to be handled by family. There should be resources out there to help people. People come to me for help, and I know nothing. It is only the opinion of power that means we dehumanise users. It is my gift that I was educated by my daughter, telling me to work for this because she could not. I am proud of my daughter that she was able to stand up to me, her conservative mother. And I am proud of myself that I am able to share this with you, and I’m not ashamed.

Inez: Look at a government as being made up by people, try to understand where they are coming from and try to support them. We need to look for commonalities that we can work on step by step. It’s been slow, but we are grateful that there is space being made. Do harm reduction, because it seems to be working though we’re just at the beginning of a long road.

One comment

  1. Well done guys, was a pleasure and a privilege to read the transcript from your side event. An amazing case put forward by all. Much respect to Transform, Recovering Justice, Anyone’s Child and Moms DU for the continued progressive push towards scientific, evidence based drug policy reform. Once again, well done. . In solidarity.

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