The ‘war on drugs’ is a war on people – Reflections from Greece on the 2023 Global Day of Action

This day is officially named "against drugs", but those of us who are active in peer-led harm reduction call it "Global Day of Action".

By Marios Atzemis, Harm Reduction Officer of Positive Voice – Greek Association of people living with HIV
This blog post was originally published, in Greek, on the Positive Voice website

This text is not an “anniversary” piece on the so-called ‘International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking’, nor is it a kind of report. Anniversary approaches do not suit us, nor does the cynicism that accompanies them in some cases, and a full account would be too long for this occasion.

This day is officially named “against drugs”, but those of us who are active in peer-led harm reduction call it “Global Day of Action”. For us, it echoes our daily work. Every such day, we are given the opportunity to talk about what is of concern to us and to acknowledge the positive developments and future challenges in the field —not as self-appointed saviours, but as people who have experienced our country’s drug policies and therapeutic (or in some cases anti-therapeutic) approaches in our own skin.

We are stronger than ever before, with appropriate peer-led education, field experience, and ongoing communication, collaboration and synergies with major civil society organisations abroad on HIV, harm reduction and drug policies. Yet, in many cases, we are considered the most unqualified to express opinions on the thorny field of “addictions”. On many occasions, people who do not have clinical or lived experience of any kind, or even any theoretical background on the issue, seek to displace us – thinking that they can speak and decide for us, without us.

All of the above reflects the multiple and multidimensional stigma that our societies harbour and which, at the first opportunity, are indirectly emphasised by the ‘professional saviours’ to remind us that they know better than we do, and that the field of advocacy and politics is not our domain.

As far as the situation in Greece is concerned, significant breakthroughs have been made in recent years with the development of a multitude of services that have solved problems that we used to face, such as housing and having a safe place to use drugs. We have also reached a high level of cooperation with the people who staff these organisations , which is to the benefit of communities surviving and resisting the ‘war on drugs’.

However, it is worth pointing out that when we talk about this field, we are not talking about something static. On the contrary, these issues are constantly changing, as the disparate communities of people who are in this space are always one or several steps ahead of policies and agencies.

For this reason, we recognise and name phenomena that we are called upon to address; for instance:

  • the proliferation of shisha (crystal methamphetamine that is highly adulterated and, thus, of poor quality), which has brought about a host of psychological challenges for people who use it and develop problems as a result;
  • synthetic opioids, which are decimating communities in North America, for instance;
  • the chemsex phenomenon, and the complete absence of LGBTQ+ inclusion in services aimed at people who use drugs;
  • and the gap between medicalised harm reduction and that which takes place on a peer-to-peer basis.

Challenges in relation to the above also reveal how strong and pervasive the legacy of punitive approaches to people who use drugs is, prioritising ‘tough love practices’ in some cases;as well as the lack of up-to-date and evidence-based practices that are not based on outdated and ineffective approaches to drugs and drug policy. Reflecting these realities are some private self-proclaimed rehabilitation centres of dubious efficacy and scientific training, which often go unaudited and trade on the human suffering and desperation of people who use drugs and those who closely support them.

To conclude, we recognise the need for our country’s alignment with the European Drug Strategy and the corresponding Action Plan, which propose the active and meaningful participation of civil society and affected communities in the design and implementation of services and policies that directly affect their lives. We will continue our work, as it were, meeting people where they are and not leaving them there.