"On this International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, I call on countries and communities to continue to improve the lives of everyone blighted by drug abuse by integrating security and public safety with a heightened focus on health, human rights, and sustainable development,” states UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
The International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking has been observed annually since June 26, 1988 – a day chosen by the United Nations to commemorate the dismantlement of the opium trade in Humen, Guangdong by one of China’s most powerful politicians, Lin Zexu, during the days of heightened tension about drug use before the First Opium War in the mid 1800s.
In 2016, more than 100 years later, the United Nations continues Lin Zexu’s efforts in dismantling drug culture by launching the “Listen First” initiative to increase the support for prevention of drug use based on scientific fact – an initiative proving to be an effective investment in the well-being of children and youth, their families, and their communities. The campaign also serves as a prime example of the progress the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has made.
The agenda is comprised of two goals (Goals 3 and 16) that calls on lawmakers to pass policies supporting the effective prevention and treatment of drug use and the diseases that current drug users are at high risk for, like AIDS and hepatitis, from using unclean needles. The agenda also calls for a culture of inclusion when addressing addiction and its consequences.
According to Deborah Small, a key speaker at the Digital Media Zone, an event hosted by PVBLIC Foundation together with the Office of the President of the General Assembly, and the executive director and founder of Break the Chains, a public policy organization dedicated to tackling racial inequities resulting from punitive drug policies, “Addiction is a disease and needs a public health response.”
The 2030 Agenda calls for a simultaneously effective and humane response to drug abuse – a task easier said than done. The science-backed approach, called Harm Reduction, serves as the foundation for the campaign is lesser known to the public but very popular amongst current scientists and psychology experts.
Harm Reduction is “a public health philosophy and intervention that seeks to reduce the harms associated with drug use and ineffective drug policies,” as defined by the Drug Policy Alliance. In simpler terms, Harm Reduction meets drug users where they are at and works with specific individual needs in order to get better. One example includes needle exchange programs, where injecting drug users can obtain clean needles and syringes easily in order to reduce their risk of getting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
Small, an active Harm Reduction advocate and a local New York City human rights advocate, states, “As a result of reforming the Rockefeller laws and enacting things like syringe exchange and community-based drug treatment, we’ve been able to reduce the prison population substantially, reduce the level of drug-related HIV by more than half, develop alternatives to incarceration that have helped families stay together and kept children from losing their parents as a result of addiction.”
Harm Reduction policies have greatly helped in the fight for drug use prevention and public safety. At events like the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem and the Digital Media Zone, the movements towards Harm Reduction policies and demands in renouncing punitive drug responses were pleasantly very much in favor.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “A basic tenet of harm reduction is that there has never been, and will never be, a drug-free society.” We work with what we have, and what we have is the science to prove that addiction is a disease. Experts in drug use treatment and prevention are targeting the derailment of negative stigmas attached to drug use and treatment, and the philosophy of inclusion and compassion in tandem with unified and effective policies are the only way to continue Lin Zexu’s legacy on the war on drugs.
Asked about the three biggest policy steps to unfold in the next 10 years, Small was emphatic:
1. “People should not be punished for the substances that they put into their bodies, only for the harm that they cause other people.”
2. “Governments should have the freedom and the ability to do what is right to protect the health and well being of the people in their borders, regardless of what people think about it.”
3. “And in a world that is growing more and more technologically adept, we should do whatever evidence and science shows us is good and not allow ideology to stand in the way of good policy.”