Support, Don’t Punish 2020: A Global Day of Action Against the Drug War

June 25, 2020

Friday, June 26 marks the Support, Don’t Punish 2020 Global Day of Action—an annual show of international solidarity against the global drug war. Activists and concerned citizens all around the world will be holding rallies, sharing information and resources, and pressuring their governments to end the criminalization of people who use and sell drugs. Instead of war, they will call for harm reduction, treatment and compassion.

The event deliberately coincides with the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1987. According to the UN, this annual day is “an expression of [our] determination to strengthen action and cooperation to achieve the goal of an international society free of drug abuse [… and] raise awareness of the major problem that illicit drugs represent to society.”

“Historically, this date has been used by governments to showcase their drug control ‘achievements’ in coercive terms,” notes the Support, Don’t Punish website. “The campaign’s Global Day of Action seeks to reclaim and shift that day’s narrative.” It was first launched in 2013 and has continued every year since then.

In the US, the War on Drugs is as intense as ever in 2020. Although some state and local governments have legalized or decriminalized drugs like marijuana or psilocybin, racial disparities in marijuana arrests have in fact increased over the past decade. Draconian practices like drug-induced homicide prosecutions have spread.

Nationally, arrests for all drugs increased in 2018, with over 1.6 million arrests made—over 86 percent of them for possession. In fact, total drug arrests have increased every year since 2015, after declining for the decade prior.

And the drug war is literally killing us. While total overdose deaths in 2018 decreased slightly, they still stood at over 68,000. That is more American deaths in one year than died in the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq combined. At the same time, politicians in hard-hit areas like West Virginia and Indiana are threatening to shut down lifesaving services like needle exchanges.

The overdose crisis has only been amplified by the pandemic. Social distancing and shutdowns have forced more people to use drugs in isolation, while increased unemployment and anxiety also exacerbate the picture. Harm reduction providers throughout the US face cuts, for reasons both financial and political.

Many other nations around the world suffer from even more brutal drug policies. For example, the Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has continued to conduct extra-judicial killings of people suspected of using or selling drugs, with an estimated death toll of over 27,000. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has deployed similarly murderous drug-war rhetoric to encourage killings by cops and vigilantes. Russia is one country among many more where harm reduction efforts are persecuted. Executions for drug-law violations continue globally, and forced drug “treatment” is common around the world.

This list of human rights abuses facilitated by the global drug war could be far, far longer. But in short, the need to support, not punish people who use drugs has never been greater.

This year, activists are holding events on or around June 26 in many dozens of locations, including, but not limited to: Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Germany; Bogota, Colombia; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kiev, Ukraine; London, UK; Mumbai, India; Nairobi, Kenya; Peoria, South Africa; São Paulo, Brazil; Sydney, Australia; and Washington, DC, USA.

The global pandemic has added a new dimension to this year’s efforts—both in terms of the need to hold some events remotely, and in the content of harm reduction education being offered. Here is a brief, non-exhaustive summary of just a few of the other Support, Don’t Punish events happening around the world:

Accra, Ghana: Activists in Ghana’s capital and largest city are teaching audiences about the intersections of the drug war and COVID-19. Students for Sensible Drug Policy Ghana writes, “The activities will focus on reaching out in solidarity, with care during this pandemic to vulnerable groups, young people and marginalized communities experiencing stigma, criminalization, social and economic exclusion owing to drug use and its associated matters.”

The group continues that it “will engage the people on the precautionary facts surrounding drugs and COVID-19 and the need for safer use of drugs during this pandemic.” They will also be distributing face masks, hand sanitizer and hand-washing supplies.

The country has seen a rise in poly-substance use over the past decade, including stimulants and opioids. However, substance use disorder treatment is scarce and of poor quality, with many drug users sent to “prayer camps” and suffering human rights abuses. There are also no legally-sanctioned syringe exchange or harm reduction programs.

Kabul, Afghanistan: In the capital of a country that has suffered far more than most from the international drug war, Bridge Hope Health Organization is sharing education about the links between drug harm reduction, HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. Filter has reported on the harm reduction work of Bridge and the many obstacles it faces. They will be distributing face masks and hand sanitizer to both people using drugs and those who are homeless. The outreach will be focused on the crowded Kote Sangi neighborhood, where a large population of people using drugs live on the streets.

Kathmandu, Nepal: Activists with Youth Rise Nepal are hosting an online video campaign in the country’s capital and largest city. Like the one in Ghana, this campaign is focused on the link between drug harm reduction and COVID-19.

Mexico City, Mexico: In Mexico’s capital and largest city, local organization EQUIS—Justicia para las Mujeres (justice for women) is running a month-long campaign to collect and share the written and video testimony of women who use drugs and/or have lived in drug treatment centers. They are also collecting commentary from other activists, experts and professionals involved in drug policy. EQUIS is shining a light on issues facing women, including gender-based violence, the harms of compulsory treatment, and women’s unique needs as drug users.

Women have suffered an unequal share of the harms from Mexico’s drug war. Of the over 52,000 women killed since 1985, about a third were killed between 2011-2017. After declining for two decades, the murder rate for Mexican women spiked after 2007, peaking in 2012 and rising again in years since. The homicide wave coincided with former President Felipe Calderón militarized offensive against drug cartels in 2006.

Women-led protests in Mexico have been increasingly visible, with a nationwide rally on March 8 followed by a historic “women’s strike,” in which about 20 million Mexican women stayed home.

San José, Costa Rica (and other locations): In Costa Rica’s capital and largest city, a group of activists is hosting Sensatez Virtual Fest 2020: Apoyamos, no Castigamos (Support, Don’t punish). It will include workshops, cinema, performances and education—all virtual.

Sensatez Fest is just part of a month-long series of events organized by Latinoamérica por una Política Sensata de Drogas (Latin America for Sensible Drug Policy), an international coalition including members from Costa Rica, Mexico and Argentina, among other countries.

“This will be our first massive virtual event including over 10 panelists from different Latin American countries,” Marialba Quesada of LPSD told Filter. “In years past we offered education and discussion about drug issues from a more local perspective. This year, our main focus is strengthening our regional networks in the areas of teamwork, education and managing drug-related issues. In each Latin American region we also want to strengthen alliances between different activist groups we work with to help them put on events, using the knowledge and skill-sets of their own members.”

St. Petersberg, Russia: Activists here are hosting an online event to discuss the problem of the criminalization of so-called “drug propaganda.” Filter has reported on the issue: Lawmakers in Russia are proposing to ban so-called drug-related “propaganda”, meaning literature that supposedly promotes or encourages drug use. The ban would impose steep criminal fines and even prison time for people who share such material in print or digitally. Harm reduction providers in Russia see this as an attempt to censor lifesaving education for people using drugs or living with HIV/AIDS.

Vancouver, Canada: Here, the local chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy is partnering with Stimulus Connect and Paradigma to host two online webinars about youth activism against the War on Drugs. Content is available in both English and French.

The city is known as a harm reduction leader in North America, operating, for example, the continent’s first sanctioned safe consumption site, InSite. But it has also seen a troubling rise in overdose deaths since the pandemic hit. Deaths nearly doubled in May compared to last year, largely driven by fentanyl. Harm reduction activists staged a rally downtown on June 23, demanding a “real” safe supply of drugs. The pandemic, they noted, has disrupted normal international drug supply chains and made local drug supplies even more toxic.


Photo courtesy of Support. Don’t Punish.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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