Most Drug Policies Are Based On ‘Stigma And Lies’: Harm Reduction International

HRI executive director Naomi Burke-Shyne says “stigma and lies” are the basis of most public policy on drugs. “Because there is so much scaremongering on drugs, many people have bought into the un-nuanced idea that drug use is bad, rather than drug policy is bad”.

MELBOURNE, April 17 – Harm Reduction International (HRI), a UK-based non-profit promoting drug policy reform, has claimed that most public policies on drugs are rooted in stigma, disinformation, and outright lies.

HRI executive director Naomi Burke-Shyne said in a hard-hitting speech at the opening ceremony of the 27th Harm Reduction International Conference (HR23) yesterday that the purpose of the conference was to tackle the “divisiveness of the lies people are told about drugs” and to focus on “strength in solidarity”, the theme of HR23.

“A big part of what we’re dealing with in our movement is stigma, disinformation and misunderstanding about drugs – factors which are very effective in upholding structures that actively oppress people,” Burke-Shyne told the HR23 conference in Melbourne, Australia.

“Stigma and lies are the basis of most public policy on drugs. There is no evidence that policies focused on punishment and zero tolerance achieve their goal of reducing drug use. There is, however, plenty of evidence demonstrating punitive drug policies are causing harm.

“Overdose deaths and a toxic drug supply, mass incarceration, compulsory treatment, HIV, viral hepatitis, are just some of the consequences of these policies.

“Because there is so much scaremongering on drugs, many people have bought into the un-nuanced idea that drug use is bad, rather than drug policy is bad.”

Burke-Shyne, an expert on harm reduction and drug policy, said this could separate harm reduction advocates from allies working on issues at the intersection of drugs, including poverty and housing, criminal systems, indigenous rights, and universal health care.

“In the same way that disinformation about drugs divides us, the far-reaching negative impact of drug policies means that drugs, as an issue, should unite us. We can’t fight racism, achieve gender or queer justice, or ensure that everyone is housed without reforming drug laws. Because drug laws are tools within these systems of oppression.

“Therefore, not only do we in the harm reduction and drug policy community need to stick together – we need to bring people from other movements in, and show how our goals are mutually reinforcing. To stand with each other.”

Burke-Shyne highlighted the “vast” amount of money spent on punitive law enforcement on drugs that usually ends up targeting poor or minority communities, saying that an estimated US$100 billion is spent annually on drug control.

She said HRI has been calling for a redirection of some of these funds to services that promote the health and rights of people who use drugs.

“But looking more critically at our work, we realise that we’ve been too polite. It’s not about redirecting a small amount – it’s about stopping funding streams for punitive and racist systems which sabotage healthier, safer societies.

“Much like we must be bold in forging alliances across movements, we must be bold in our demand for investing funds in health, justice and community. Because we’ve had to endure too much violence and harm from drug policies and too many lies about drug use for far too long.”

Helen Clark: Transition Gradually Towards Regulated Markets For Drug Supply

Helen Clark, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, speaks at the opening ceremony of the 27th Harm Reduction International (HR23) conference in Melbourne, Australia, on April 16, 2023. Photo by Conor Ashleigh/Harm Reduction International.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark – who is also chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) that includes former heads of state and government – called for the gradual transition towards regulated markets for supply to tackle the harms caused by illegal drug markets.

“In practice, this can mean countries creating legal markets for lower harm drugs like cannabis, like what Canada has done,” Clark said in a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of HR23 yesterday. Canada legalised the sale and consumption of cannabis in 2018.

“It can also mean finding ways to increase access to safer supply of substances such as opioids and stimulants in order to reduce overdoses and tackle addiction, as a number of jurisdictions already are.”

Clark also cited the Canadian province of British Columbia that has provided people addicted to drugs a prescribed “safer supply” of a range of substances since March 2020. In a pilot project that is running for at least three years from last January 31, British Columbia decriminalised small amounts of hard drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, heroin, morphine, and fentanyl.

In Vancouver, harm reduction advocates distribute labelled packages of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine to people who are not eligible for prescription supply.

“It’s all about saving lives and preserving health,” Clark said.

The former New Zealand PM also said the implementation of safe consumption rooms in New York City in the United States has saved the lives of hundreds of people since the opening of monitored drug consumption on-sites in November 2021.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) passed legislation last October to decriminalise small quantities of nine commonly used illicit drugs – including amphetamine, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, heroin, cannabis, psilocybin, and LSD – that will take effect this October. In 2020, the Australian territory also legalised personal use of cannabis for adults, besides allowing households to grow cannabis plants.

Clark further praised the success of the Melbourne Supervised Injection Room that opened in June 2018 and has safely managed more than 6,750 drug overdoses, with legislation introduced by the Victorian government to keep the medically supervised injecting service (MSIR) ongoing.

“In New Zealand, since 2019, the New Zealand police have operated under what I call a partial direction to divert users of drugs to harm reduction services.

“As a result, charges and convictions have come down in number, although not as much as was hoped for or possible if they dropped the qualification law that diversion should be in the public interest. In my view, it’s always in the public interest, but if you give discretion, the police will use it.”

The GCDP calls for universal access to harm reduction services; the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use, a move to legal regulation, and an end to police violence and harassment over narcotics.

“It goes without saying that over-incarceration and disproportionate sentencing, including the application of the death penalty, should cease,” Clark told the HR23 conference.

“We should see inclusion, equity and non-discrimination as the fundamental principles of all policies.”

Drug policy, she said, should be explicitly aligned to the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), notably the health SDG on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being that she said should encompass health-based approaches to drug policy.

“Finally, we’re calling for health system strengthening strategies to explicitly include harm reduction as a pillar, and for national responses to problematic drug use to provide at-scale services for people who need them, so no-one is left behind,” Clark said.

“Just like the suffragettes all those years ago who dared to fight for the right to vote, we must fight for the right to health and to harm reduction. Existing legal barriers and political obstacles to harm reduction need to be removed everywhere.”

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