A civil society-led movement for human-centered drug policy reforms | Karen Mamo

By giving people who use drugs equal opportunities to speak and contribute to the development of a human rights-based drug policy approach, society would be moving closer to fulfilling the noble goal of promoting the well-being of all human beings

Gathering in the historic city of Athens between 2 and 4 November, European and pan-European organisations met for the civil society Correlation European Harm Reduction Network (C-EHRN) annual meeting. Established in 2004 in Amsterdam (NL) as a European civil society network and centre of expertise in the field of drug use, harm reduction and social inclusion, C-EHRN unites a broad variety of actors in the field of drug use and harm reduction, from grassroots and community-based organisations, service providers, drug user organisations to research institutes and health service providers. This year the meeting included also a session on the state of harm reduction for people experiencing the devastating effects of the war in Ukraine and the courage of harm reduction workers embracing huge risks to deliver hope, and truly leave no one behind.

Addressing the plenary session, the Mayor of Athens Kostas Bakoyannis emphasized the important role of dialogue and cooperation to revers the present discrimination and human rights abuses against people who use drugs. Welcoming the first established Drug Consumption Room in Athens by the Government Organization Against Drugs (Okana), the mayor highlighted the pivotal role of a human rights based approach to address health and social issues related to problematic substance use and ensure all people reclaim their right to a dignified existence.

According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, safe consumption areas provide a safe framework for the use of substances in hygienic conditions under the supervision and the possibility of immediate intervention by qualified personnel. They are harm reduction services, the usefulness and effectiveness of which have been proven many times over.

Writer and drug policy activist chairing the European Network of People Who Use Drugs, Daphne Chronopoulou echoed the role of meaningful participation by people who use drugs in decision making and welcomed the Greek’s government’s commitments to move away from punitive and retributive means propagating stigma, discrimination, and injustices. Highlighting the intricate reality between access to services, and the promotion of dignity and respect for people who use drugs, Daphne underlined the importance of ensuring a harm reduction approach also embeds considerations for housing, gainful employment opportunities, and positive reintegration into society without criminal or other legal repercussions.

In a continued approach to better map the role of grass roots initiatives to significantly impact drug policy reform, Peter Sarosi, Director of the Rights Reporter Foundation in Budapest, explained that meaningful civil society involvement in drug policy continues to be fragmented.  Navigating in a difficult legal and social space, particularly those operating in conservative societies, civil society and peer-led organisations continue to experience various structural and administrative barriers predominantly when trying to implement comprehensive changes to promote the full decriminalisation of drug use in society.

For over 60 years, morally-driven politics have been pushing unscientific arguments and levelling, a war on drugs, quickly transforming into a war on people. Testimony to this are staggering statistics from the United Nations World Drug Report (2021) stating that 22% of people in prisons are sentenced for offences related to drug possession for personal use. From a more regional perspective, the European Drug Report (2022) by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA) explains that 64% of drug law offences relate to personal use or possession.

These percentages represent millions of lives suspended by a punitive justice system and a society duped to believe coercion and persecution are the answer to address drug use and problematic drug use in society. In reality, punitive drug policies mirror broader social injustices pervading our communities and sustaining a culture of exclusion and stigma.

On the other side of the spectrum, one finds that 75% of the global population remains without access to opioid based medication and therefore exposed to unnecessary suffering and pain. These patient’s right to access the highest attainable standard of health is directly infringed by exclusionary health policies emanating from international drug control and a threat-based philosophy accompanying international policy.

Recognizing the negative effects of international drug policy, whilst embracing a human centered approach, therefore one championing the health, social, and legal well-being of those most negatively impacted by punitive drug policies continues to be at the heart of C-EHRN work and activism. Peter Sarosi presented the Quality Standards of Civil Society Involvement in Drug Policies, which were developed in 2021 in the framework of the EU Civil Society Forum Project and provides a useful and practical tool to monitor and evaluate the level and quality of civil society involvement at local, national, European and international level. Sarosi spoke about the negative impact of tokenism and the importance of meaningful civil society involvement at all stages of policy making.

In conclusion, by facilitating an inclusive approach, and therefore one giving people who use drugs equal opportunities to speak and contribute to the development of a human rights-based drug policy approach, society would be moving closer to fulfilling the noble goal of promoting the well-being of all human beings.