The war on drugs is a war on us

Bullets, Wrong Policies and SILENCE

Delivered by Bikas Gurung

Program and Communication Manager

Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD)


The war on drugs is a war on us: Bullets, Wrong Policies and SILENCE

On the morning of 26 July 2018, at the AIDS 2018 conference we did a die-in protest together with many community activists to demonstrate solidarity and demand for an immediate end of the extra-judicial killings of people who use drugs in the Philippines, Bangladesh and other Asian countries. It was with such a powerful feeling after the protest that I went up on the stage to speak alongside few other young activists representing different constituencies from different parts of the world.

The session was themed on different forms of violence that all the key populations endure. The moderator asked couple of questions to each speaker. Looking at the session notes that I had scribbled on a piece of paper, I have tried to recall my presentation and share it in my blog. It is not a verbatim transcript. I have added few more information and details, which I could not cover within the limited time allotted for speakers. I hope that everyone will find it useful.

Moderator: What is the situation that people who use drugs are facing in your region? What are the main issues?

Bikas: Thank you for the question and for having me here today. I am very happy to be here, particularly in this session because this is the only session where I do not have to speak through an HIV lens. We are allowed to freely speak about violence.

Let me start by requesting a show of hands if any of us in the audience wishes to be identified as a person who uses drugs. [None were raised]. I’m glad that many of us in the room could actually be less aware about various issues of people who use drugs or the crisis our community is facing as we speak here.

You can see that I have written “Bullets, Wrong Policies and SILENCE” in my title slide. I will slowly explain about them.

People who use drugs have been facing at least three major crisis – first the over criminalization that has reached its extreme level of war on drugs, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture. Secondly, our community is facing the epidemic of premature and preventable overdose-related deaths as a result of highly adulterated drugs and poly drug poisoning. The third crisis that people who use drugs have been suffering with is the blood and air-borne infections like HIV, Hepatitis C and Tuberculosis due to not having timely access to quality health services.

I hate to explain it in detail. Actually, I do not want to explain it in detail. I think most of us at least know what is happening in the countries like Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and now also in Sri Lanka. We are on a war. We are literally on a war in which our community has been brutally killed like animals. Everyday we lose our people. So many individuals have been killed. For me and for all the drug user community around the world, they are our friends and families but it seems like for others who also live with us in this same world, they have become numbers – mere statistics.

In terms of the torture and abuse of people who use drugs, criminalization has also resulted in the forced and compulsory detention in the name of treatment. It is estimated that at any given point of time nearly 500,000 people are being detained in the Southeast Asian countries. This is not because of lack of evidences. If evidence would be the solution then I would not have to speak here. There are piles and piles of evidences. For instance, the evidence that only 10-11% of people who use drugs may become dependent and may need treatment as a support was reported by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). It was not a drug user group who came up with this evidence. However, without considering evidences people are arrested and put into detention centers for multiple years without fair trial.

The other serious human rights violations that we are facing is the forced urine testing. The test is supposed to happen in a clinical setting but untrained law enforcement officers are doing it out in the streets. It does not matter if the test result shows false positive. Instead of considering it an indicator to further investigate, they are using it as evidence to arrest and consequently put people into compulsory detention. It does not matter if the tested person had used drugs for the first time in his life or if the person had used any regular medicines from the pharmacy. Some regular medicines do have chemicals that are similar to that of crystal methamphetamine and may result in false positive.

People who use drugs face a lot of stigma and discrimination due to which they are socially excluded in many parts of the world. Sadly in Asia, the families are sometimes the very people who ask the law enforcers and detention staffs to arrest or kidnap their drug using son and daughter. The discrimination they face in the health care settings and other range of human rights violations can go on and this full session time would not be enough.

We have been trying to raise these issues. Our friends in the Philippines are trying to support their peers for early release from prison. All of us who are working as frontline human rights defenders have no safety and security. It is scary and terrible to advocate in a country like Philippines. The war on drugs is trending and has permeated the South and Southeast Asian countries.

Why do you think it is trending? There is one thing that is common across all these countries – election. Duterte was in his presidential campaign, Jokowi gave the shoot-at-site order when the election was approaching near, Bangladesh will have election in 2019 and similar case is seen now in Sri Lanka as well. Public in our countries do not know about drugs and mostly they do not share the sentiment for the dire situation of people who use drugs. There is a rise of populist politician leaders who knows how and when to take advantage of this fact by demonstrating their tough stance on drug problem. All you need to do is to blame people who use and sell drugs for all the problems of the nation.

Martin Luther King said that, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”. In the last two years SILENCE is what is happening.

Our people have not only been killed by bullets, they have been killed by the wrong drug laws and policies, and they continue to be killed by the SILENCE of those who could have influenced to end these atrocities.

Moderator: Bikas, many governments struggle to differentiate between a user and a producer or dealers. If they would be able to differentiate then they would probably focus on drug dealers only. What do you have to say about that? What could be the solution?

Bikas: Well we already have a good practice from Portugal that I can share. I will share it by analogy with Vietnam. In order to differentiate between a user and a seller they use something called “Quantity Threshold”. Basically, it is a model to determine a user and a seller by comparing the amount of drugs found with the person to the quantity threshold. However, there is something that we need to be mindful of – that in the course of drug use, many users might have also been a seller – not with an intent of making a fortune out of it or destroying other lives but only to finance their next dose. Therefore, the quantity threshold should not be used as the ultimate basis for making judgment on someone’s life. Even if the threshold is surpassed, there is a need to identify why the person was selling drugs and also a need to look for any other factors that could potentially mitigate the sentence.

Lets talk about quantity threshold in detail with examples. In 2000, Portugal decriminalized use of all forms of drugs. As per their law, the quantity threshold they have set is thought to be enough for the consumption of one person over a 10-day period (Cannabis – 25 grams; Hashish – 5 grams; Cocaine – 2 grams; Heroin – 1 gram; LSD or ecstasy – 10 pills). In Portugal, anyone found with drugs below the threshold will not be arrested but referred to a dissuasion commission where s/he will be assessed and provided information and recommendation for range of health services.

There is a very good report by the Open Society Foundations called “Drug Policy in Portugal: The benefits of decriminalizing drug use”. I would strongly recommend it to those who have not read it.

Similarly, Vietnam has also decriminalized the use of drugs and made it an administrative offence. But it is very tricky and that is why many advocates consider Vietnam model as a misuse of quantity threshold. Compared to the Portugal, Vietnam has set a threshold that is at least 10 times less that any drug user could be carrying enough quantity to be prosecuted and imprisoned (i.e. applicable threshold: Heroin or cocaine – 0.1 gram, Other substances in solid form – 2 grams, or Opium resin – 1 gram). When you are arrested with a drug that is less than the threshold, then you will be sent to a compulsory detention center for 2-5 years under administrative sanction. These detention centers are even worse than the prisons.

Moderator: Do you have any other solutions to share? What can we do about the situation of people who use drugs that you have just shared? How can we address them?

Bikas: Yes I do. I have come up with four major solutions. There could be many but since I have only 5 minutes to speak, I prioritized only four. They are pragmatic and actionable but will require long-term consistency and support from those who are the most SILENT.

  1. The first thing we need to do is to advocate against the “drug free world” targets as ruled by the three United Nations drug conventions. The 1961 convention’s preamble recognizes drug use as a “serious evil fraught with danger to mankind” that states need to combat. This type of language dictates the national narcotics control laws to follow criminalization and be disproportionately punitive for any level of drug-related offences. The year 2019 marks the ending of the 2009 political declaration and plan of action to achieve the drug free world. Just imagine how the situation has become since 2009? The estimated number of users has almost doubled; the range of substances available to people has never been wider; drug-related harms and fatal overdose has increased unconscionably; HIV and Hepatitis C still pose the greatest health risks; drug production has grown more than ever, the drug trade that states aspired to dismantle has flourished more than ever. The drug free world is unrealistic and can never be achieved. There is a need to accept the fact that drugs have been part of our life, culture and tradition for centuries.

Now would be an opportunity for reform because many countries have started decriminalizing drug use or legalizing cannabis use. However, the drug policy and practice spectrum is extremely polarized if you consider progressive countries like Portugal and Canada versus Philippines and Bangladesh where over 22000 people have been brutally killed. Yet everyone is silent. Every year in March they come to the session of the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) and do not discuss the progress and regress happening in the world. We have to break this silence.

On the other hand within the UN system, human rights is one of the three pillars. Those who have tried to familiarize with the UN human rights mechanisms and to engage through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions will know how difficult and impossible it is for a normal person or victims to access. Why is it so difficult when it is so much important for UN to call it one of the three pillars?

All these systems need to be updated and simplified. Even a smartphone app update is available almost every week, how come these systems and conventions that affect our lives are so outdated? They are more than half century old.

  1. The second thing that we could do is shifting our focus towards public receptivity – reaching out to all the moms and dads in a language they understand. For so long we have made efforts to change the situation by lobbying with elite groups. Thirty years of harm reduction services yet there is still no acceptance towards those services, no coverage and no integration into national health systems. We must learn that the public in Asia has the same perception towards drugs and drug use as they had 30 years ago. We must realize that it takes another Duterte to over-rule any progress we have made so far because these politicians know how to craft a populist agenda for their advantage.
  2. The third solution is about changing our strategies. We need to learn from other movements such as LGBTIQ movement, women’s movement and HIV and Hepatitis C access to medicine movements. At least it is evident that national laws can be drastically changed within the current UN drug conventions. Strategic litigations could be a way forward depending on the country context. We need to come out of the comfort zone and pilot something new focusing on few countries to begin with. This has become even easier due to the advancements in the information technology.
  3. Last but not the least, is the prospect of having a joint movement for decriminalization.

I do not know any of the speakers on the stage. I met all of them for the first time; however, there is one thing that connects all of us [the key populations] together – “CRIMINALIZATION”. We can connect with each other through the range of human rights violations we face each and every day.

We cannot win this fight alone. We need to join our forces and have one voice against the criminalizing laws and policies. I really hope that there will be a joint movement in near future.

Thank you everyone for your patient listening.

About the Session

Title: Rise against violence: Coming together to end inhuman humanity

Moderator: Kees van Baar, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands

Description: We have seen horrific acts of violence against key HIV populations (gay men, transgender women, people who use drugs, sex workers) from Chechnya to Tanzania and from Philippines to Indonesia over the past two years. But the response to these acts has often not come from the HIV movement because, as some may argue, the violence was not AIDS related. It’s also been a time that women have spoken loudly against gender-based violence (GBV), with millions joining forces to stand against those who assaulted them. However, for many, this brave movement is disconnected from the AIDS movement. This violence is not new to the world and to the AIDS response.

In many countries, key populations’ vulnerability to violence is fuelled by oppressive legal and policy frameworks that criminalize their status and/or behaviour. Meanwhile, stigma and discrimination may mean that members of key populations have less access to services or are even denied support within mainstream GBV services.

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