"We Are On The Right Side Of History" - An Interview With Jamie Bridge

June 25, 2017

Today, on the 26th of June, activists from all over the world are taking action against global drug prohibition under the "Support. Don't Punish" slogan. Please read our interview with the coordinator of the campaign, Jamie Bridge, who is a senior policy and operations manager at the International Drug Policy Consortium

: Tell us about the background of this campaign! How and why did you decide to launch it, what is its goal? 

Jamie Bridge: The original idea came about through a Dutch-funded project in five countries called “Community Action on Harm Reduction” – focused in Asia and Africa mainly. The country partners wanted some kind of campaign or branding that they could use in their work – so, after much discussion, Support Don’t Punish was born as a broad brand that partners could use at the national level. The campaign started in 2013, and the uptake far exceeded our expectations and spread way beyond the five project countries. This showed the appetite out there for actions like this to promote harm reduction, drug law reform and the rights of people who use drugs.

Drugreporter: How do you support the organisations and activists who decide to join the campaign?

Jamie Bridge: It depends on what they need. We have a wide variety of partners engaged every year, some of whom don’t require any additional support from us, and others who need funding, materials and guidance. So we produce a range of materials on our website that anyone can access, and we send out t-shirts and other materials if people ask for them. We also provide small grants to partners in countries to help fund things like venue hire, printing, travel, etc. Finally, we have a team in London and in Bangkok who are there to assist in any way we can – by email, phone and now also through an online communication tool called Slack.

Drugreporter: Last year 125 cities participated in the campaign. How many cities do expect this year? Is there any new place or special event you would like to highlight?

Jamie Bridge: Monday 26th June will be the fifth Global Day of Action for the campaign, and at the latest count we know of events in more than 200 cities across more than 90 countries – with more being confirmed all the time. You can see all of these on our Day of Action map on the www.supportdontpunish.org. Some events are taking place over the weekend, other later in the week (due to the 26th June being Eid Mubarak this year), but all are linked to the campaign. Highlights include public concerts and debates in Belgium, a float parade towards Parliament in Ghana, a training workshop for religious leaders in Mauritius, street art across five Portuguese cities, a fake drug shop in Paris, and even a 250km bike road trip on the Delhi-Rajasthan Highway in India! This will be the biggest ever Day of Action, and a global show of force from civil society.

Drugreporter: Have you received any feedback about the campaign from governments or international organisations?

Jamie Bridge: Yes, the campaign has definitely got us noticed and the feedback has been really positive. The events have helped partners around the world to open doors and start discussions with policy makers – this year, the events in Tanzania will be attended by Prime Minister Kasimu Majaliwa! In other countries, such as Thailand, the campaign has been credited with playing a major role in policy changes. We are always evaluating what we do, and what impact it is having.

Drugreporter: Not everybody likes the campaign: a kind of counter-campaign has been launched with the slogan “Prevent. Don’t Promote”. How do you feel about this?

Jamie Bridge: Of course, drug policy is a sensitive and divisive issue – but I guess “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”! The other campaign you mention was launched at the UNGASS in April 2016, but did not leave much of a footprint. As long as Support Don’t Punish can continue to be a broad umbrella that has value for those who want more humane, more effective and more evidence-based drug policies – we needn’t worry too much about those who want to continue the current regime despite the harms it continues to cause. This is why we remain flexible with our campaign, allowing partners to adapt or translate is as needed so that it works for them – for example, this year the European Network of People who Use Drugs worked with us on a variation called “Self-Support. Don’t Punish Us”, which I think is great. 

Drugreporter: How do you see the chances of drug policy reform in the global scale? Should we expect slow gradual changes or are we heading to revolutionary paradigm shift? 

Jamie Bridge: Change is happening, there is no question. The speed is glacial at times: the UN sands shift slowly, and progress is continuously stifled by the reliance on consensus-based decision making. But progress is being made nonetheless – the debates and rhetoric at the UN on drugs now is a world apart from a decade ago, as is the strength and acceptance of civil society participation. But the UN does not to “revolution”, it does slow “evolution”. Looking at it pragmatically, the revolution will happen at the national and local level – governments making brave decisions to better serve and protect their citizens. In some cases, as in the USA, Uruguay, Bolivia and Canada, this might be for one drug, in others, such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, this might be for all of them. But it is at this level that real change will happen, and then the global policy framework will follow – it will be left in a situation where it either needs to adapt and evolve, or wither and die.

Drugreporter: What is it that keeps you personally motivated and inspired to continue this fight?

Jamie Bridge: Personally, it is because it is a justified fight and one that has not been won yet. I really believe that we are on the right side of history – one day people will look back on global drug prohibition with the same sense of whimsy and incredulity that we look back on alcohol prohibition in the USA in the 1920s: “well, of course that didn’t work – what a stupid idea”! But until we get to that place, people are still being killed, still overdosing, still facing unacceptable harms and risks, still being demonised. And that is why I, IDPC, and everyone else who is involved in this campaign remains motivated to do what we do. It is a case of when, not if, we change the world’s drug policies. Once we achieve this, we will all have to find another social justice cause to throw our weight behind!

Interview by Peter Sarosi