HR23 Diary: Conference opening day!

Fixing drug policy

In Singapore, any suggestion of moving away from a punitive drug policy leads to fears about fostering a permissive culture where drug use is condoned or even encouraged. People worry that reducing penalties, decriminalising or even legalising certain drugs will lead to an explosion of drug use and crimes.

In our previous update, we touched on how harm reduction is not the same as enabling or encouraging drug use.

Today at HR23, we heard more about the harm that prohibition and punitive drug policies themselves cause. Given the Singaporean context, it’s especially important that we consider this aspect of the war on drugs.

When drug use is criminalised, people who use drugs end up with limited access to healthcare and other life-saving services. Such an environment also makes it impossible to set up harm reduction services that can prevent overdoses and keep people safe.

A highly punitive war on drugs environment means that people who use drugs have nowhere to turn when they need help, care or support.

Without drug checking, they have to use the street drugs they buy without being sure of its potency or its components — this greatly increases the risk of overdose deaths.

Being unable to discuss drug use, even in counselling and mental health settings, restricts access to support and harm reduction approaches.

When medical professionals are required by law to report drug users to the police, people who use drugs will opt not to seek medical attention even when they need it or want treatment to help them manage or curb their drug use.

This ultimately leaves people more vulnerable and more at risk. Prohibition punishes, but doesn’t address people’s well-being.

People have been using drugs and psychoactive substances for a long, long time. The use of substances like psychedelics and hallucinogens are even part of the traditions of some cultures. Drug consumption is nothing new. The crux is how we respond to drug consumption.

The war on drugs is incredibly expensive — lots of resources get directed towards policing, surveillance, control and maintaining large prison populations. This system of punishment disrupts lives, harms relationships, inflicts trauma, and leaves individuals grappling with rejection and discrimination even after their release from prison.

It would be much more cost-effective and life-saving to redirect the resources we spend on policing and punishment towards healthcare and harm reduction services that prioritise people’s well-being and safety, instead of trying to control their behaviour or shame them.

People’s Alliance

Exploring decentralised funding mechanisms for drug policy & harm reduction in the global south.

The People’s Alliance meet-up invited members from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. The term ‘people’s alliance’ was chosen to signify the importance of human rights and self-determination, which have anti-colonial roots and struggle, and to ensure non-exclusivity.

During the welcome speech, an organiser and others involved in the movement got emotional. It’s clear that creating this movement speaks to many who recognise the deep need to address the usually extractive relationships between funders and those most affected by the global war on drugs. One organiser stated: “It’s been a long time coming, so feel free to cry”.

Decentralised funding

Stigma associated with drug use comes from multiple arenas, including those involved with global fund and global fund access. Though funding bodies are necessary, institutes end up not wanting to approach them due to their lack of understanding of localised on-the-ground needs and situations, and their unreasonable demands.

Recognising that ‘solutions’ to drug policies tend to be created by colonial-centric actors, this Alliance wanted to band together to discuss those who should be centred in conversations about drug policy, including people who use drugs, growers, and people who are involved with illicit trade.

We also joked about the ‘parachute approach’, where international ‘experts’ drop in to the local country, glean some information, and suggest supposed silver bullet fixes which don’t account for local needs. In Singapore, this even happens within the local context as those not involved with drugs are making laws and decisions for those who are involved with drugs.

Similarities around the globe

Across the discussion, we all shared various individual and country experiences, harm reduction approaches, challenges and more.

In Brazil, people who work in harm reduction are criminalised and punished. In Mauritius, while people from communities can discuss laws, it’s difficult to keep the government accountable. In Indonesia, people struggle to find work after being released from jail. Much of what was shared resonates with the situations in Singapore, where there are heavy punitive charges, little government accountability, and struggles with finding work post-release.

A Latin American participant spoke about how, after coming out as a drug user, they weren’t invited to round table discussions and government policy meetings anymore. However, they were no longer discredited by police officers and doctors, who previously stated that the individual didn’t understand drug use, but now recognised that they have lived experience. As discussions continue in Singapore, we must ensure respect of lived experiences in all forms.

Creating the alliance

We asked how to underpin human rights, trust, and respect in law-making and societal understanding. We highlighted the need for communities to be protected. We explored barriers of stigma and discrimination against those involved with drugs. We raised the importance of various stakeholders having a seat at the table — policy makers, drug users, researchers, organisers, and more. We discussed how to empower people who use drugs to organise themselves. We commiserated that drug users are not seen as key populations, and are usually disregarded politically, socially and even as human beings.

Human safety has priority, while human rights is seen as secondary. Therefore, there is still stigma.

Let’s start talking about stigma-free harm reduction. Let’s make the shared perspective the common perspective.

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