Advancing the end of the ‘war on drugs’ —Support. Don’t Punish, ten years on

The question of ‘when change is going to finally happen’ will continue to be a difficult one. But we can confidently say that thanks to our shared and steadfast commitment, it is much closer than it was 10 years ago.

By Juan Fernández Ochoa, IDPC Campaigns & Communications Officer

We are opening windows of opportunity

If you are invested in ending the ‘war on drugs’, it is likely you will have already been asked by peers, friends, family or colleagues: ‘When is this going to end?’, ‘When do you think we’ll see decriminalisation here?’, ‘Do you think we’ll see drug checking in the coming five years?’…

These are tough questions. On one hand, because they remind us of what our communities desperately need and currently lack. And, on the other hand, because the punitive logic guiding prohibition pervades so many aspects of our lives (relationships, discourses, policies, practices, etc.) that knowing when they will be finally uprooted is basically impossible.

Change is not a linear process and should never be taken for granted. Over the past decade, we have seen rapid spurs of progress in places we would not have imagined. And regression on key wins where we thought they were well established.

To make some sense of this, some colleagues speak about advocacy and campaigning efforts being opportunistic—that is, reliant on leveraging policy windows as and when they open.

For the last ten years, the Support. Don’t Punish campaign has built a decentralised movement bringing together thousands of people, working through hundreds of networks, organisations and collectives, to develop our capacity to effect change. Not just to wait for the proverbial windows to open, but to mobilise collectively to build a groundswell of support that will push them open.

A marathon, not a sprint

This global effort has come a long way, far exceeding the hopes of the community-led networks and advocacy organisations that conceived it in 2011. 

Because there’s power in numbers, the story of the Support. Don’t Punish campaign can be partly told through the growth of its reach. 

The first Global Day of Action in 2013 saw activities in 41 cities of 22 countries. This year’s 10th Global Day of Action is set to mobilise thousands of people in at least 281 cities of 91 countries. Throughout the past decade, we have organised almost 1,800 activities in over 110 countries. Our common message resonates in dozens of languages and all latitudes, particularly in countries of the Global South. 

That we all come together, with our specific priorities and circumstances, in this single unified demonstration of solidarity is a testament to the universality of the campaign’s message. We all want to see our communities thrive. And we know the ‘war on drugs’ is a huge obstacle to achieve this.

Street performance by the Ukrainian Network of People who Use Drugs (PUD.UA/ VOLNA)

Beyond numbers, the story of the campaign’s success is also one of ingenuity. There’s a common thread uniting the poems of pain and resistance that the women of Resister Indonesia immortalised in a zine last year, the street performances on the challenges of OST and police violence developed by peers of Ukraine’s VOLNA/PUD.UA, the cross-continental online workshops organised by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Paradigma Coalition as the COVID-19 pandemic forced us into lockdown, the policy dialogues and press conferences that AfriLAW and the West African Drug Policy Network have convened in Nigeria, and the barbering courses that the Free School of Harm Reduction co-developed with street-based peers in Brazil. 

We have developed and utilised an ever-growing range of tools and strategies, from the formal to the informal, from the traditional to the experimental, to set the foundations of the world we want for ourselves and our communities. There’s precious learning and power in this network of experiences and experimentations, which we continue to encourage.

Poster for a post-Global Day of Action rally in New York advocating for OPCs, the first one of which opened months after.

The campaign’s growth is also measured in the way our movement has cultivated solidarity between and with people affected by the ‘war on drugs’. The creation of the Support. Don’t Punish campaign was to a great extent a reaction to the grotesquely disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic on people who inject drugs. In tackling the many systems of violence and neglect that fuel that inequality, we have come to better understand their connection with related forms of injustice: preventable overdose deaths, the racist prison-industrial complex, precarious livelihoods for growers of crops deemed illicit, a dearth of access to controlled medicines, homelessness, patriarchal violence, and a long etcetera. 

By better understanding the ramifications of the ‘war on drugs’, and how they intersect with many different forms of marginalisation, we have been able to build alliances for a global common front for responses that prioritise care and support over punishment and stigma.

‘Support. Don’t Punish Us’ —EuroNPUD created a regional poster translated into the languages of network members.

Finally, the Support. Don’t Punish campaign reaches its tenth anniversary with a long record of victories under its belt. This includes increased mobilisation capacity, as reflected by local partners who have developed nationwide networks of support by civil society organisations, academics and civil servants as it is the case in Argentina, under the leadership of Intercambios. And also as evidenced by the growing autonomy with which community-led networks organise with the campaign; and in this we would highlight the work of BerLUN in Germany, EuroNPUD across Europe, DHRAN in Nigeria, and VOLNA/PUD.UA in Ukraine, just to name a few.

Maria-Goretti Ane (IDPC) speaks to a TV crew about the Support. Don’t Punish campaign as part of an event organised by the West Africa Drug Policy Network (WADPN).

Victories also include an expanded access to and pick-up of our shared messages by local and national media. Local partners join radio programmes and TV sets, are featured in hundreds of press articles, and place opinion pieces and mass social media campaigns in ways that significantly maximise our collective reach. Indeed, the Support. Don’t Punish Global Day of Action creates a focal point that many colleagues leverage to engage with the media. 

Colleagues from the Norwegian Association for Humane Drug Policies (FHN) with the former Minister of Health of Norway.

And, perhaps more clearly, the campaign’s impact is reflected in the growing receptivity of decision-makers to our collective message. The Support. Don’t Punish Photo Project now features a long list of UN officials, parliamentarians, government officials and civil servants. Local partners report that the campaign has facilitated access to spheres of power that were once inaccessible to them. And the success here is not just about having a seat at the table, but also about decision-makers embracing this cause, as shown by the many public authorities who now speak in the language of ‘Support. Don’t Punish’, co-organise events with local partners, and relay our messages in ministerial and presidential cabinets.

A very special day of action

This tenth Global Day of Action will, once again, put in full display how this movement spares no effort to bring about positive change with people at the centre. Among the close-to-300 activities organised worldwide, there will be:

  • In Edmonton, Canada: A community barbecue, followed by a space for reflection, support and grief, featuring Indigenous music and ceremonies. 
  • In Bogotá, Colombia: A harm reduction workshop for people deprived of liberty.
  • In Tangier, Morocco: A rally with people who use drugs and their families, followed by a social gathering with music, poetry and speeches by civil society, government and community representatives
  • In Delhi, India: Community-led advocacy visits to ministerial representatives and parliamentarians.
  • In Caloocan City and Cebu City, in the Philippines: A kumustahan —a form of catch-up, between women who use drugs from these two cities heavily impacted by the destructive ‘war on drugs’.
  • In Melbourne, Australia: A night of film screenings and discussions on drugs and health, with the provision of harm reduction equipment for attendees.
  • In Vienna, Austria: A harm reduction booth at an electronic music festival.
  • In Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal: A street outreach campaign on COVID-19, drug use and ending stigma.

Ten years on, we continue to build on our collective achievements and those of the wider drug policy reform and harm reduction movements that we are firmly embedded in. 

We have never been better placed to push for substantive change, in the corridors of power, in our neighbourhoods and in our own selves.

The question of ‘when change is going to happen’ will continue to be a difficult one. But we can confidently say that thanks to our shared, steadfast commitment, it’s much closer than it was 10 years ago.