With Failed War on Drugs as Backdrop, Global Day of Action Calls for Reform

Today, in cities around the globe, we will be out in the streets calling for support, not punishment.’

Deirdre Fulton


As the failures of the so-called War on Drugs become increasingly apparent, people around the world will rally on Thursday and through the weekend, calling for global drug policy reform that prioritizes public health and human rights over criminalization and punitive measures.

Starting with a demonstration on Thursday night in Brooklyn, an array of actions in 100 countries across six continents will take place under the banner “Support. Don’t Punish.” The campaign aims to provide a counter-narrative to the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26—one that’s more focused on harm reduction than punishment.

“Drug policies are supposed to pursue the health and welfare of humankind, but instead they have focused on repressive responses which are causing more damage than the drugs they are supposed to eradicate,” said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), which is coordinating the campaign.

The actions come on the heels of the first United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in almost two decades, which took place in April and was billed as ahistoric opportunity to end the failed War on Drugs.

Alas, at UNGASS, “prohibitionist policies held sway and only token changes in the direction of harm reduction were made,” wrote Amanda Feilding, founder of the Beckley Foundation think tank, in an op-ed at the Guardian on Thursday.

It’s time, she said, for the United Nations to take its own 2016 “theme”—Listen First—to heart:

The theme of listening to children is commendable, and will help to move the focus from the production and supply of drugs to the demand. Of equal if not more importance, is listening to the evidence that demonstrates how the war on drugs is failing: failing to curb or eliminate drug use, failing to eliminate the production and supply of drugs, failing to protect public health, and failing to uphold the “three pillars” of the UN’s work—peace and security, development, and human rights.


The UN must take the opportunity to heed its own words, and “listen first,” to the people on the ground, to the NGOs working in the field, to the countries experimenting with alternative approaches, and to the experts and agencies informing them.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its 2016 World Drug Report (pdf) on Thursday—and according to Kasia Malinowska, director of Open Society Foundation’s Global Drug Policy Program, it “does not depart at all from a prohibitionist perspective.”

The report, she told The Influence, doesn’t address economic realities in drug-producing and drug-consuming countries, omits mention of the death penalty for drugs, and fails to acknowledge how the criminal justice system exacerbates drug use and abuse around the world.

What’s more—with its findings that the number of people suffering from drug use disorders increased disproportionally for the first time in six years in 2014, from 27 to 29 million—the report is an abject example of how the War on Drugs has failed.

“The UNGASS proved that change is slow to come to the UN,” wrote Hannah Hetzer, the senior policy manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance. “But with citizens across the world pushing for reform, and with countries moving ahead with novel drug policies, sooner or later the UN too will have to change to reflect new realities on the ground. And today, in cities around the globe, we will be out in the streets calling for support, not punishment.”


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