Samuel Plamondon with input from Caleb Chepesiuk
One hundred years ago to this very day an assassination was carried out in Sarajevo, an event that would trigger a war larger and more egregious than any the world had seen before it. A different kind of war, one that would last far longer and eventually affect many more nations, was just months from beginning in earnest.
On December 17, 1914, the United States Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Ostensibly a law made to regulate and collect revenue on the sales of opium and coca products, a sly interpretation of one of its clauses was used as justification to arrest any physician who prescribed morphine or heroin as a maintenance drug for someone with an opioid addiction. The medical community immediately recognized the damage that a policy like this had the potential to cause:
“The really serious results of this legislation…will only appear gradually and will not always be recognized as such. These will be the failures of promising careers, the disrupting of happy families, the commission of crimes which will never be traced to their real cause, and the influx into hospitals to the mentally disordered of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives.”
– Editorial in the New York Medical Journal, May 15, 1915
One hundred years on, similar policies have been established all throughout the world and these “serious results” have damaged the lives of many more people than anyone could have imagined.
However, just as it was a century ago, there are many today who believe that using criminal law to control and punish drug users causes more harm than good. This belief is exemplified by the global “Support. Don’t Punish.” campaign. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has billed June 26 the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and so the annual Global Day of Action as part of the “Support. Don’t Punish.” campaign, organized by International Drug Policy Consortium, is intended as a counterpoint to the punitive approach propagandized by the UNODC. During the campaign, activists from close to 100 cities in 50 countries staged protests and artistic exhibitions with the purpose of educating the public about the importance of drug policy reform. Examples of specific policies that were called for during the campaign include the opening of supervised injection sites, the decriminalization of drug possession, and the provision of naloxone over-the-counter to opioid users.
Canada was represented in the “Support. Don’t Punish.” campaign by Participatory Research in Ottawa: Understanding Drugs (PROUD), a group of drug users and their allies who run and publish sociological research on the topic of local drug users. Tara Heighton of PROUD explains the group’s action for SDP:
“When brainstorming for PROUD’s summer forum, we knew that the Second Global Day of Action for Support Don’t Punish was coming up on June 26. The forums are events where we share data collected during the PROUD study in 2013, where people who either inject drugs and/or smoke crack were asked questions on a number of topics. Because of the team’s lived experience, along with the early results of the data collected, the team knows that the heightened risks drug users face cannot be ignored. Our forum was centered on criminalization and the experiences of people who use drugs in Ottawa, and it seemed a natural fit to connect this with the struggles people who use drugs face around the world. We organized a short panel for the forum, featuring three speakers: Frank Welsh, from the Canadian Public Health Association, to talk about their recent report on how Canada’s war on drugs is failing and the need for new policy options; Kelly Florence, a PROUD researcher, to speak about PROUD research findings on the law and criminalization; and Ricki, a community member, to speak to her personal experiences with having her addiction criminalized. The speakers were all very engaging and provided three different lenses of how drug use is criminalized in Ottawa, which sparked a great question and answer period.
We blended in elements of Support Don’t Punish so that we could help build awareness for this important cause, and show solidarity with the thousands of people around the world taking action. With this in mind we set up a table with an information board about the day, and provided lots of blank Support Don’t Punish posters for the forum attendees to write their own messages on. Messages included things like “Unite as one!”, “Stop Criminalization” and “Provide treatment options.” To support the global day of action on June 26 we will putting up these posters in our neighbourhoods in order to raise awareness, and encouraging people across Ottawa to do the same in their neighbourhoods. With this small action we hope to show our connectedness to people across the globe who are demanding that the repression of people who use drugs be replaced with true care and support.”
To find out more about the events that took place for “Support. Don’t Punish,” check out the official website, where you can see local actions listed by city.