Home » Side Event: No More Silence: Amplifying the Voices of Populations Disproportionately Impacted by Punitive Drug Policies

Side Event: No More Silence: Amplifying the Voices of Populations Disproportionately Impacted by Punitive Drug Policies

Charity Monareng (SSDP): Drug policy has a disproportionate impact on certain populations. We see disparities in incarceration rates and socioeconomic consequences. These voices historically excluded from drug policy debates. This side-event has been organized in collaboration with OHCHR, IDPC, and part of 7 CND side events organized by OHCHR building on the latest report on human rights and drug policies. 

Dasha Ocheret (UNAIDS): Thank you to OHCHR, SSDP and other partners for organising this discussion. For many years drug policy decisions have come at the expense of the rights and health of people who use drugs. People who use drugs continue to face access barriers to HIV services, arrest, deprivation of child custody, violence, discrimination, and human rights violations. People who use drugs have done great work documenting these impacts and proposed health and rights based solutions – including ending criminalization and making access to harm reduction services available. These are grounded in science and recommended by various UN entities. The community needs to have seats at the tables, internationally and at country level. We are committed to supporting communities as experts in the HIV response and historically the community has been engaged in UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board. The most recent UNAIDS Global AIDS Strategy has set targets that people who use drugs have resources to lead 80% of harm reduction programs and 60% of drug policy and human rights programs. We work with networks of people who use drugs as technical experts on a wide range of policy considerations. We have funded technical support projects in several countries to support engagement of people who use drugs at the country level in planning of next Global Fund cycle. These interventions are based on the values, preferences and needs of the community.

Rosma Karlina (SPIN Indonesia): Indonesia has a multitude of contexts and lacks information about women and trans people who use drugs. We have researched to guide policy decisions and identify information gaps. We conducted an online questionnaire for the community to complete and we had 55 responses. Womxns Voice is the name of the grassroots organisation which is providing emergency housing for women who use drugs experiencing violence in Indonesia. We are providing a safe space for the community. The data we have collected is coming from a variety of cities across Indonesia, but unfortunately we only received a maximum of 2 respondents from each city. Many have been involved in HIV services and many also working for NGOs. Most respondents did not use drugs in the last month and have not had experiences of overdose in the past year, mostly due to long standing interaction with services influencing behaviours. The majority had more than one sexual partner in the last month and the HIV testing rate among respondents was quite high. 80% are open about HIV status with family and intimate partners. 41% of respondents had experienced legal cases due to drug use but just 18% had access to justice through these proceedings. Several had experiences of violence during legal proceedings. One respondent had been stripped naked in public during arrest. Gender-based violence is still experienced by women who use drugs, especially when they are involved in legal proceedings. Women who use drugs who face violence and report this violence to police are often arrested due to their drug using status – facing physical violence and violence from the state. There is a need for greater access to information and other resources as well as gender sensitive policies, and an evidence based approach that upholds human rights. Women who use drugs have a variety of needs that need to also be met in harm reduction services. Prison is not a solution – we need support through public health initiatives. 

Professor Pelmos Mashabela (South African Dept of Justice and Correctional Services): I am grateful to have this opportunity to share what we are doing in relation to women imprisoned for drug related offences. First thing we should acknowledge is that there is very little data on the number of women using drugs and in prison in South Africa. We have conducted an assessment to look at the legislative and policing framework in the country. One recommendation from this is that prisons are made for men so we need to change this. Less than 3% of the prison population are women but they can’t be released so we need to convert facilities to be more feminine and more gender responsive. We also try to give more focus to issues facing women in contact with the law. Pathways to criminality are different for women than men. Intention to give focus to women as key populations in the national drug masterplan. Give women more attention, especially those imprisoned. Women also benefit from non custodial measures and community correction platforms to accommodate their feminine needs.

What about harm reduction in prisons? We are very fortunate to visit facilities in Kenya and we learned a lot how to leverage harm reduction services for women behind bars. We have trained health practitioners to provide harm reduction services. We are looking at the profiles of women behind bars to integrate them into services. We can’t accept that we don’t have coordinated services and we hope we will be able to work towards improving this and link to communities so on release they will be able to access these services. 

Gaby Bruning (International Indigenous Drug Policy Alliance): Aboriginal and torres strait islandder children represent extremely disproportionate rate of out of home care among children and deaths among police custody. Aboriginal people in Victoria are much more likely to be arrested or receive a warning, charges increased by 180% between 2013 and 2022, Prior to pandemic, prison population was as high as 890 up more than 85% since June 2018. Women are 2x more likely to be incarcerated and for men this is much higher. 

Why am I talking about this data? These are numbers that can’t be ignored. The medically supervised injection facility in Sydney has over 9000 registered clients with 13% aboriginal, over represented in the service and over represented in sanctions. Overdose rates in every category are higher among aboriginal communities across Australia. 20 per 100,000 compared to 5.9 for non indigenous people. This is not and has never been just a war on drugs – it is a war on indigenous people, war on plants and war on land of indigenous peoples. How are we still discussing rights of indigenous people and how are indigenous rights not embedded in drug policy. We are tired of colonizers speaking for us and carrying colonial load. Our alliance stands together as one demanding we are included in all matters concerning indigenous people.

Katrina Ffrench (Unjust UK): Want to speak about harms of polling especially of cannabis in the UK. There was a case in 2020 known as Child Q, a 15 year old black girl who has locks in her hair. She attended school and the teacher said they could smell cannabis and she was searched by the teacher, who then called the police who removed the child from the classroom before strip searching her within school grounds. No drugs were found. She was sent back to her class and her parents were not informed. All of this happened because of one teachers racism. She may have been smoking, but it also may have been because of the dire social housing situation she may have been living around someone who smoked and this could have been the source of the smell. Her mum later raised concern and this was not made public until over a year later. There was then a protest outside Hackney council who promised there would be changes. This case led to a big discussion around strip searching of children, but still over 2,000 strip searches of children occur every year. 20% of these are black children while just 3% of the population of children are black. ⅓ of strip searches carried out by the metropolitan police in London, where there are higher levels of racialized communities. For stop and searches, ⅔ are for drugs and usually based on the smell of cannabis. Lots of data showing that black people don’t consume more drugs but they are more likely to be stopped, and more likely to have violence because of years of racial stereotyping. Interaction with police is very different from white counterparts. The law says the smell of cannabis can’t be used as grounds alone for stop and search but it very often is used. Cressida Dick, former police commissioner, said she can’t actually smell cannabis at all. 

I will now give another case of Jordan Walker-Brown aged 20 was released from prison and had cannabis on him, police chased him and tased him. He is now paralyzed from the waste down. They don’t want to pay fines from police or risk arrest. The police claimed to smell cannabis and this led to serious injury. 

Finally I will give the case of athlete Bianca Williams who was also stopped and searched in 2020 – she doesn’t smoke and was with her child and partner. The black community in the pandemic were working on front lines and were often searched based on being out during lockdown. The pandemic was also the only time that Chinese people were more likely to be stopped. Williams was pulled over from her car with husband and child because police claimed they could smell cannabis from their car. Commissioner said being pulled over was the right decision. Williams and her partner were dragged from the car, and their child was added to a police database. Narrative within the UK means organized crime is at peak but black and brown communities are the ones being targeted. Large number of stop and searches don’t find anything. In Germany it could be Turkish or other communities, in the UK it is black and brown. Don’t fall into the same trap to generalize and criminalize racialized communities. 

Q&A: More of a statement than a question, when we consider racialized communities it is up to the group in power to make the changes – we can’t make the changes. The power structures are resting in your hands. System is not fair, but working with us there can be changes. We don’t have the power. Power systems are built around you so you need to make the change. We have done our part. 

Q: The left in Norway regarding drugs is more conservative and the right has adopted UN based approach. In Norway there are parties nominally anti racist whio have all the progressive issues but oppose legal regulation of cannabis as this will make things worse and increase addiction among poor and racialized communities. How do we get otherwise progressive people to realize the war on drugs is not the way to go?

Katrina Ffrench: This is very paternalistic to say these communities will be more addicted. We need to showcase where things have already worked. As civil society we need to work together to see  what some of the messaging was in e.g. New York to achieve what they have. Nobody wants to be the first person and stick their neck out, risk losing their seat etc. We also need to show how much money this can make and how that can be repurposed into services etc. 

Q: Cannabis in Canada is a very boring topic, it is regulated and available. Yes we need little tweaks. Canada in particular has a roadmap for this – you can regulate substances. We can show politicians how this can be done. Use among over 60 year olds is the only demographic that has been increased.

In this context Indigenous people have not been benefited from this, indigenous people have been left behind. 

The Government of Canada has a large budget that transfers to all regions and a budget for innovation spreading health to indigenous people. However, this is regulated by the govts rather than the community having any input.

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