Connecting struggles: Notes from the ‘This is not a webinar’ workshop series

Between October and December 2020, #SupportDontPunish campaigners put on their thinking caps and strengthened the foundations of sustainable alternatives to the 'war on drugs'. Below, we summarise the thought-provoking #NotAWebinar workshop series.

With hundreds of local partners worldwide, Support. Don’t Punish is enriched by the knowledge and experiences of thousands of campaigners in over 100 countries.

For that reason, spaces for discussion and collective strategising are a fundamental part of building power and solidarity within our campaign.

Our challenges and priorities may be different from place to place, but there’s also a common thread in the logics of punishment and criminalisation of the ‘war on drugs’ that we seek to subvert. As such, exchanging tactics across borders to advance sustainable alternatives that centre our communities’ health and well-being is incredibly valuable.

Foreseeing long-lasting blocks to in-person events during the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the campaign organised the ‘This is not a webinar’ workshop series, three global capacity-strengthening events on topics selected in consultation with campaigners:

The application process received 121 responses from all corners of the world and concluded with the selection of 49 people from 25 different countries! Each one of the facilitators (community and thematic experts) were invited to participate in the anonymised selection process, to encourage familiarisation with the profiles and interests of prospective participants, reduce bias and promote fairer regional and gender representation.

The application and selection processes also allowed us to identify access needs and provide support, including in relation to internet access.

Each one of the sessions followed a similar structure, starting with short and stimulating presentations by the facilitators, and followed by 2-3 breakout-room guided discussions.

The conversations in the breakout rooms were incredibly rich and gravitated around issues identified by the participants themselves, promoting a sense of ownership and seeking to re-create, as much as possible, the conditions of an in-person meeting.

Visual summaries (available in English, Spanish and French) were commissioned for each one of the workshops, can be accessed below and are free to share widely!

Please note these illustrations are a *concentrate* of knowledge — Take your time to digest them! Consider the connections drawn in them, the different ideas and questions that they raise, and feel free to interrogate them.

‘In their best interests’? – Making drug policy work for young people

The first workshop in the series, focused on youth, a segment of the population often talked about in discussions on drug policy, but rarely heard. Steering clear from that exclusionary approach, the campaign invited three inspiring young advocates to lead our discussions.

Ailish Brennan’s (Youth RISE) presentation focused on diversity and intersectionality. Ailish invited us to consider young people in their complexity, cautioning against simplistic, homogenising and inevitably disempowering narratives. On that note, she called for ‘full spectrum harm reduction’, an understanding of harm reduction that goes beyond service provision and HIV-focused interventions to encompass and address the needs of all young people who use drugs, in all ways and all contexts.

Clement Bofa-Oppong (SSDP – Ghana) took the relay to remind us of the importance of centring the lived experiences of our movement’s grassroots. Clement invited us to meet people where they are at, to listen and learn so that our mobilisation responds to the needs and realities of those most exposed to the violent edge of the ‘war on drugs’. He also highlighted the power of stories in campaigning and advocacy, recalling an instance during debates on Ghana’s new drug law when the powerful testimony of someone who had struggled to access support prompted useful discussions with decisionmakers.

Finally, Jorge Herrera Valderrábano (Instituto RIA) took the floor to discuss barriers and opportunities for young people’s voices to influence drug policy, both internationally and domestically. Jorge explained how the exclusion of young people from drug-policy-making reflects broader societal attitudes toward young people, whose personhood and agency is structurally questioned by adult-centrism and capitalism. He passionately argued for young people to seize all opportunities available to be involved in the development and implementation of policies that concern them, including through appealing to existing normative guidance (for ex., Resolution 2250 of the UN Security Council).

Two breakout discussions ensued. The first one, on promoting participation, identified a host of barriers in access, including: the criminalisation of drug use, stigma, the disregard of young people’s challenges in relation to their drug use, unhelpful ‘just say no’ narratives and programmes, limited space for organising and mobilising, among others. Once those were identified, ideas for overcoming them were brainstormed, including: the creation of youth forums at different levels of policymaking, fostering spaces for young people to discuss their rights and needs, and the inclusion of young people in debates and decision-making spaces.

The second discussion focused specifically on the issue of access, highlighting: culturally-sensitive, youth-led, attractive, and honest campaigning and communication efforts; the provision of harm reduction information to young people and adults in their community (including parents), and addressing preconceived and harmful ideas that automatically link drugs and crime.

  • Workshop visual summary: 'In their best interests'? – Making drug policy work for young people

Don’t Punish – Prison abolition & drug policy reform

The second workshop in the series focused on our movement’s relation to prison abolition, a movement and a practice that seek to dismantle structures of state violence and build caring communities that guarantee everyone’s needs and safety.

The three presentations that preceded the breakout discussions focused on the inadequacies of existing drug policies to advance ‘justice’, inviting participants to reinvent the ways we relate to each other to build a world in which justice is not about punishment, but about care and support in the community.

Imani Robinson (TalkingDrugs) shared the powerful work of the Aorta collective; in particular, a series of definitions for three conceptions of justice: punitive, restorative and transformative. Imani explained how mainstream models of justice are disempowering and harmful for individuals and their communities. Rather than creating space for people to address the root causes of unsafety and hurt, and fostering healing, our legal systems prioritise the enforcement of the law through damaging systems of surveillance, punishment, and incarceration.

Juan Fernández Ochoa (IDPC) explained how drug laws form a global legal edifice with foundations steeped in bigotry, colonialism and social control. Juan outlined some of the destructive impacts of this punitive regime, including in terms of neglect, violence, incarceration, deaths and a near-total lack of access to a safe supply of ‘controlled’ substances/medicines. Finally, he advocated for decriminalisation and harm reduction as key, essential, practices upon which to build sustainable alternatives to the harms of prohibition.

Last but by no means least, Ernesto Cortés (ACEID / LANPUD) started his presentation pointing to a glaring injustice of the ‘global drug control regime’: the criminalisation of traditional practices that have accompanied numerous indigenous communities for centuries. Ernesto explained how the regulation of the coca leaf by the Morales administration in Bolivia was an act of anti-colonial resistance. And how this spirit of liberation resonated with similar experiences elsewhere. In this vein, he explained how people who use drugs in Uruguay had organised to successfully demand the legal regulation of cannabis, adopted by the Mujica government in 2012. In both cases, Ernesto underscored, regulation has offered some redress to communities targeted by the ‘war on drugs’, and reduced the negative impact associated with informal, unaccountable, criminalised markets.

Breakout discussions interrogated the concept of ‘decriminalisation’ using a grid inspired by this Critical Resistance resource (replicated in a different context by Abolitionist Futures). Participants remarked that decriminalisation could certainly reduce the resources invested into punishment (including policing and prisons); lead to more funding for life-sustaining services and initiatives; facilitate de-stigmatisation and harm reduction’ (including through campaigning); and question the idea of producing ‘safety’ through violence against marginalised communities (as drug policing does, for instance). However, participants also underscored that decriminalisation was not the ultimate goal and, in fact, is unlikely to end police harassment. The conversation suggested that it was, rather, an essential component of more sustainable responses to drugs that advance our communities’ health and safety. Participants also highlighted the need to build a front against moralistic, elitists and exclusionary opposition to decrim; including by improving our sector’s capacity to communicate our messages; and by garnering more support from the likes of academics.

  • Workshop visual summary: Don't punish - Prison abolition and drug policy

Strategic, effective and genuine messaging – Communicating reform

The last webinar in the series addressed the important, and vast!, universe of communications in relation to our campaigning and advocacy work. All three panellists gestured toward different avenues for further consideration during the breakout rooms: from the power of storytelling as a means to connect with intended audiences; to the importance of values and integrity as a means for sustainability, and as a goal in and of itself; to exploring key concepts to improve our impact on social media.

Ruod Ariete (NoBox Philippines) invited us to reach beyond the ‘drug policy bubble’ not by pandering but by tailoring our messages to connect with our intended audiences. To do so, Ruod explained, we can rely on the power of story-telling. By communicating through people-centred stories, framed in ways that speak to shared experiences, emotions and beliefs, we can build bridges.

Juan Fernández Ochoa (IDPC) urged the group to carefully consider how their work reflected their values and their organisations’. Juan explained communications can be powerfully galvanising, but also perpetuate problematic and harmful ideas that undermine our campaigning and advocacy goals in the long run. In seeking to avoid these pitfalls, and drawing on the work of the Public Research Interest Centre, Juan asked the group to consider both intrinsic (solidarity, equality, social justice, etc.) and extrinsic values (prestige, wealth, power, etc.) and the trade-offs in building communications around these.

Dania Putri (Persepsi) broke down the basics of social media work for us, outlining the meaning and importance of metrics such as reach, engagement and ‘conversions’ to assess our impact. She encouraged us to experiment, acknowledging the ‘dialogue’ that we establish with our audiences and alluding, once more, to the power of stories as a means for connection. Finally, Dania urged us to carefully consider some of the tensions inherent to taking our campaigning work to social media: the potential of increased engagement and the challenges of privacy; the importance of lowering barriers to participation and the limits of digital activism; the benefits of these platforms and their exploitation of private data for profit, etc.

Breakout rooms discussions were structured by six questions submitted and voted upon by participants in advance. These covered a very wide range of issues, including:

  • The need to include actors currently involved in supply chains in any transition of criminalised markets toward legality, and to address existing contradictions in our movements with regard to people involved in the cultivation and supply of drugs.
  • Building bridges with other causes and movements, including by shedding light on the many ways drug policies impact our communities and populations pushed into situations of vulnerability, but also building common fronts resisting criminalisation (of poverty, of sex work, of the enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, etc.).
  • Tailoring messages to different audiences, by building (principled) common ground and leveraging points of convergence.
  • An important conversation on garnering donor support for communications work, by making it clear that the way we frame and disseminate information matters, and can significantly increase the reach and sustainability of our work.
  • Fostering conversations with people who have never engaged with drug policy reform, which highlighted avenues such as story-telling, leveraging connections, avoiding jargon, involvement in political activism, working to make our spaces more inclusive and accessible.
  • And, finally, examples of successful campaigns, which highlighted the experiences of Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Nigeria in mobilising young people through peer-to-peer advocacy, as well as efforts through the Support. Don’t Punish campaign, including through digital storytelling in the Philippines.
  • Workshop visual summary: Strategic, effective and genuine messaging - Communicating reform

The first edition of the ‘This is not a webinar’ workshop series was a tremendous success, and underscored Support. Don’t Punish campaigners’ appetite for generative discussions that hone our mobilisation efforts. If you want to be part of this de-centralised learning community of change-makers and agitators building sustainable futures beyond the ‘war on drugs’, remember to follow our communication channels (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Newsletter) and keep us posted of your activities!