Marco Ugarte/AP

Global war on drugs protesters highlight human rights abuses

Activists in more than 80 cities push leaders to end policies that punish drug abusers instead of helping them recover

Citizens took to the streets in a global campaign launched Thursday in more than 80 cities to protest current drug policies and call for an end to what they said is the senseless criminalization of drug users.

The  Support, Don’t Punish project — including demonstrations, ad blitzes and social media campaigns — aims to change laws and policies, raise awareness for greater funding for health services, promote the human rights of drug users and gain public support for drug reform.

“This campaign is to raise consciousness that reforming our approach to drugs is a global issue, and people all over the world are looking to their leaders to realign their approach to the war on drugs,” said Allan Clear, executive director of Harm Reduction, a New York–based advocacy organization for drug policy and public health reform.

“We want to move away from a punitive approach to one that takes into account public health, human rights, rights of drug users to access health care,” Clear said.

The global project was organized by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations calling on their governments to end what activists say is an expensive and counterproductive war on drugs — which they say costs over $100 billion every year and has failed to shrink drug markets or reduce use.

New York activists were planning a protest on Thursday at the United Nations headquarters, which in 2016 will host a General Assembly session on drug policy. The activists hope for recognition by member states that current drug strategy is not having a positive public outcome and that criminal sanctions against people who use drugs do not work.

The U.S. war on drugs has influenced how neighboring Mexico handles drug offenders. Drug reform activists in Mexico City said their government spends too much money on its highly militarized police force as it prioritizes drug offenses over violent crimes — which have been rising in recent years.

“Kidnapping is on the rise. Yesterday an article reported that there are about 60 a week,” said Aram Bara, Latin American program officer at Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia and Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “Do we really want to use all of our resources to put people in jail who are not doing anything but carrying small quantities of drugs, or prosecute high-impact crimes that are more harmful to society?”

The organization launched a website Thursday giving Mexican citizens 10 reasons they should be involved in drug reform. He said while there is a much smaller segment of society that uses drugs compared with the United States, the recent legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Washington and Colorado has made many question the point of the war on drugs.

“To know that the country where the spirit of the war on drugs originally came from, the U.S. — which is also the main market of drugs in the world — has legalized cannabis in those states, I think it has a big toll on Mexican public opinion,” Bara said. “Do we want to be engaged in a war to stop traffic north of the border if once it crosses, it’s legal?”

He said Mexicans have already started the conversation about legalization there but now wonder whether to more closely follow the example of the two U.S. states or Uruguay’s. While the U.S. model allows private business control of marijuana, the Uruguayan model calls for a complete state monopoly.

As more U.S. states — such as California in 2016 — and other countries consider different forms of marijuana legalization, many people around the world are increasingly arguing that the war on drugs is unwinnable as it is currently being carried out. A number of activists say it is based too much on punishing users instead of helping them deal with any drug problems that they may have.

Critics say U.S. drug policy has helped create a massive prison-industrial complex, with no treatment opportunities linked to the criminal justice system.

“There are a lot of private prisons that want to make money out of the fact that people are sent to prison for drug crimes,” Clear said, adding that globalized banks — some of which allegedly launder money from drug cartels — and arms manufacturers also often benefit from the war on drugs.

When drug users are sent to prison without any opportunity for treatment, the problem is not addressed, Clear said.

“It’s a completely inhumane system,” he said. “We need to reimagine how we approach social issues like this, and the overall health care system in the U.S. This is a social justice issue.”

Protests around the world were schedule for June 26 for a reason: It is the U.N.’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which has been used in some countries to justify violent crackdowns and to promote harsh punishments for drug offenders.

“Today is a day when countries like Iran or China execute people for drug offenses,” Clear said. “Drug offenses are not a crime that warrants the death penalty. These human rights abuses … won’t stop until we all stand up around the globe and say this is wrong.”

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