As I sat in the 3rd Latin American Drug Policy conference last week in Mexico City, news emerged about two youths in Nueva Laredo who were brutally murdered because they were believed to have spoken out against narco traffickers online. It was about half way through the conference, creating a strange moment where my excitement about the energy and potential for reform collided with the harsh realities of failed drug policies.
Throughout the conference the urgent need for reform was made clear. Stats and arguments were presented throughout that demonstrated the disastrous effects failed policies were having on communities across Latin America and the world. The criminalization of people through drug laws has devastated communities, leading to such atrocious facts as ‘85% of those imprisoned for drug crimes in Ecuador are women, or that 1/3 of people imprisoned in Argentina are for drug crimes.’ The failure and limitations of supply reduction policies was made clear. Stats were presented on the failure of Plan Colombia, on the failing prices alongside rising potency of illegal drugs, as well as tales of human rights abuses from both organized crime elements and from military and police forces. Across Mexico, the leading cause of death for youths is murder. One panellist described an optimistic scenario in Mexico which saw 55 000 deaths as a result of drug market violence at the end of Felipe Calderone’s current term as president.
During meetings and discussions it became all too clear that while these facts are shocking, these realities cannot be looked at as exceptional. Across the world, drug prohibition is having devastating consequences, with countries sitting at different points in the spectrum of impacts. The issues we address as drug policy reformers must be borderless. While the scales may be different, Canada and Mexico both share needless deaths, human rights abuses, and wasted resources as a result of our countries’ failing drug policies. Both countries are consumers and producers of currently illegal substances, and both countries face similar problems when it comes to accessing treatment, harm reduction services, and honest education about substance use. We must recognize that the violence from drug traffickers and from the state in Mexico is related to the similar violence in communities across Canada.
Just as the prohibition related problems we face are on a shared spectrum, so too are the responses we take. Where injection drug use is a problem, clean needle distribution is a necessity. Where young people are disadvantaged by poor economic opportunity, creative community responses are needed. Where young people are using ‘party drugs’, peer led harm reduction strategies emerge. Where drug market violence threatens community safety, residents find ways to band together to demand changes to policies and practices that perpetuate the status quo.
With this in mind a group of young activists gathered before the conference to connect our movements across borders. I was honoured to be asked to participate in the video we produced for the closing panel of the conference. As we debated what the key messages should be, it became clear that we wanted this video to inspire other young people to action. Across the entire world, young people are organizing and taking action to end the war on drugs. Our video is an attempt to let other young people know that whenever they take action against the injustice of drug prohibition, they are not alone. We are everywhere, and we are together!