News and Films from the Frontline of the War on Drugs
Since January 1981, when the first drug user group ‘Junkie-bond’ was established in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the drug user movement has grown exponentially: people who use drugs have continued to organise and form collectives and unions to protect and defend the health and human rights of their community. This struggle for autonomy, self-determination and empowerment of people who use drugs has been, and is, a global phenomenon.
The Rights Reporter Foundation (Drugreporter) and the International Network of People who use Drugs (INPUD) produced this documentary film series that aims to document how the movement of people who use drugs have formed around the world, how they maintain momentum and mobilise, and how they undertake their work and show resilience in a context of criminalisation, marginalisation and oppression.
The episodes follow the timeline of the development of the movement of people who use drugs from Amsterdam to Afghanistan and globally. The production of the series has been a great adventure. We conducted 34 video interviews in 20 countries around the world. 8 interviews were filmed by the Rights Reporter Foundation, the rest by members of the Drugreporter Video Advocacy Network, video activists, and freelance videographers worldwide. The documentary series was also part of the online conference “HIV 2020: Community Reclaiming the Global Response” which ran from July through October of 2020.
Theo van Dam – in the footsteps of Nico Adriaans – was one of the founding fathers of the drug user movement in the Netherlands. They established self-help groups, they promoted harm reduction, fought stigma and discrimination and established safer consumption rooms that later became the official policy in the Netherlands. Theo van Dam helped organise user activism in other countries as well. He was the inspiration to Tonny van Montfoort and his peers in Belgium, to start organising to defend the health and rights of people who use drugs. Tonny and his peers work at the Free Clinic in Antwerp in the C-Buddy project, which helps people who use drugs access Hepatitis C tretment. Theo's work also served as a model for the French "Self-Support for Drug Users" group, called ASUD. Miguel Velazquez Gorsse from ASUD tells us about the main achievements and challenges of user activism in France.
In the early ‘90s the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) was formed in response to the HIV crisis and overdoses among people who use drugs. The tireless work of Ann Livingston and VANDU contributed to significant changes in how people who use drugs were treated in the city. Among the various harm reduction services that formed, they contributed to the opening of the first legal drug consumption room in North America and trials with heroin prescription programs.
With the emergence of fentanyl in the illegal drug market, the overdose epidemic skyrocketed, and in 2018, more than 10,300 Canadians died as a result of an apparent opioid-related overdose. Activists like Zoë Dodd from the Toronto Drug Users Union and the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society reacted by opening up illegal overdose prevention sites, saving many, many lives. Their civil disobedience has changed the landscape of Canadian Drug Policy: those illegal sites eventually became legal.
Many people are still dying every day in Canada, and drug user activist groups like VANDU, the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, and the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD) are fighting for a safe drug supply, so people in need have access to an unpolluted source of their drug of choice.
This year JES network in Germany celebrated its 30th anniversary, and is one of the oldest drug user groups in the world. Dirk Schäffer – a member of the network – tells us how with the support of Deutsche Aidshilfe, the JES drug user network contributed to the availability of harm reduction services in Germany, including drug consumption rooms and heroin prescription programs.
The drug user groups in Denmark and Norway were also crucial to achieve the opening of these kinds of life-saving services in their own countries. The Danish Drug Users Union (Brugerforeningen), under the leadership of Jørgen Kjær, has been a model for drug user organisations all over the world.
The drug user groups in Norway, led by Arild Knutsen from the Association for Humane Drug Policy, have changed the drug policy landscape significantly. Drug consumption rooms are available, heroin prescription and other innovative substitution programs are planned, and a major drug policy change is happening right now, with a move away from punitive measures and towards a more humane and evidence based decriminalisation model, based on the experiences of Portugal.
The rapid development of harm reduction services in recent years in South Africa has largely been influenced by the movement of people who use drugs in the country. 10 years ago, there was no needle exchange program in the country, and now there are multiple, providing 2 million sterile syringes a year for people who inject drugs. The South African Network of People who Use Drugs, supported by the non-governmental organisation TB HIV Care, tirelessly campaigns for the humanisation of people who use drugs. They managed to change the aim of the South African drug strategy to focus on providing support for problematic drug use, rather than creating a drug free society. People who use drugs are consulted when developing the country’s drug strategy. Their advocacy for visible policing resulted in fewer arbitrary arrests, and the South African Police Services stopped the use of quota systems, which required a certain number of drug users to be arrested. There is still a lot to do to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs, and to end the racial injustice and discrimination of women, which are widespread in the country. Watch the film featuring Angela McBride, Nelson Medeiros, and Shaun Shelly of SANPUD.
Disclaimer: SANPUD believes in representativity and diversity. This film features three of the four founders and does not reflect the current diversity of the board, staff, or membership of SANPUD.
In the country where the drug war was born, people who use drugs have fought for their dignity and human rights for decades. They have achieved the legalisation of needle and syringe exchanges in many states, successfully campaigned for hepatitis C treatment, and fought hard against the extremely harsh criminalisation of drug use around the US. In the US last year 70 thousand people died of overdose, and it is activists who, with the leadership of Dan Bigg, have made naloxone widely available. There is even an underground safer consumption facility somewhere in the United States, which is saving lives at this very moment.
In this episode you can witness the oral history of the users’ movement, as told by Louise Vincent from the Urban Survivors Union (USU), Hollis, who for a long time worked at the San Francisco Drug Users Union, and from Robert Suarez, who is a long-time activist at VOCAL-NY and USU.
The history of the movement of people who use drugs in Australia is a long and rich one. It is one of the few countries that has funded user organisations for over 30 years now.
In this episode of our series, four veterans of the user movement in Australia tell us the oral history of the movement. They are Jude Byrne from the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), Annie Madden and Charles Henderson from the New South Wales Users and AIDS Association (NUAA), and Geoffrey Ward from the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA).
In the ‘80s when HIV appeared among people who inject drugs, the Australian government wisely responded by involving drug users in the design and implementation of their response. This approach resulted in minimising HIV infections among users in the country. The activists successfully advocated for the opening of medically supervised injecting rooms, first in Sydney and recently in Melbourne. Naloxone distribution is run by the user groups as well.
Despite their successes, their work is far from done. They tirelessly fight to end prohibition and the harms arising from it, including the zero tolerance approach to drugs at dance festivals, which results in the deaths of young people who, out of fear of being caught, swallow their week’s supply; the drug testing of drivers for cannabis, where your license can be taken away if you test positive, even though you used days before; or the removal of children from their drug-using mothers, regardless of how she treats her child.
In this episode we also learn about how New Zealand successfully responded to the HIV epidemic by being one of the first countries to have a national needle and syringe exchange program.
It would take several episodes to cover all the amazing work done by user activists in Asian countries in the last few decades, working hard for access to treatment and an end to the criminalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs.
Asia is one of the regions of the world where people who use drugs are treated the harshest. There are still several countries implementing the death penalty for drug trafficking, including Singapore, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Despite the calls by international agencies to shut them down, there are still hundreds of thousands of people forced into so-called “compulsory drug treatment centres,” which are essentially concentration camps, where people are held without a trial, tortured, starved, and forced to work for private companies. In Indonesia, if you don’t report that your relative or loved one is a drug user, you face criminal charges yourself. In the Philippines, 30 thousand people were murdered by police squads and vigilantes after president Duterte called on people to kill drug users. Similar happened in Thailand in the early ‘00s, when more than 3000 people were murdered by police.
In this environment, even the existence of drug user groups is a miraculous and heroic achievement. Two of our episode’s interviewees, Anand Chabungbam and Bikas Gurung, work at the Asian Network of People who Use Drugs. Their work focuses on supporting user groups, and they have managed to call attention to the human rights violations that people who use drugs face, and to advocate for their rights at the national, regional, and international level. In India, Simon W. Beddoe with his colleagues at the Indian Harm Reduction Association and other groups, managed to scale up harm reduction services. In Indonesia, Edo Agustian with his former organisation PKNI entered into a dialogue with the government and (among other things) made hepatitis C treatment much more widely available for people who use drugs.
In war-torn Afghanistan, the situation for people who use drugs is dire. There are three million people who use drugs in the country, and out of the nineteen thousand injecting opiate users, only around two thousand people receive methadone. We escorted Abdur Raheem Rejaey, head of the Bridge Hope Health organisation, under the famous bridge in Kabul, where they distribute syringes to people who inject heroin under very harsh conditions. Users are abandoned and neglected to the extent that even their dead bodies aren’t collected and buried. Forced treatment and torture is the usual ‘treatment option’. Raheem asks for the international community to support their organisation so that they can serve their community by providing services and advocating for their rights.
In Tanzania, Happy Assan works at the Tanzania Network for People who Use Drugs, TanPUD. The organisation was registered in 2014, and has since been involved in strategy building, guideline development, and in educating the user community, doctors, and nurses. They worked hand in hand with UNESCO on educating school children. They achieved amendments to the government’s drugs bill in 2015, which lessened the penalties for drug offences. The organisation now has two hundred thousand members across Tanzania.
The Latin American Network of People Who Use Drugs (LANPUD) is also a relatively new umbrella organisation, representing user groups from the Latin American region. In this film we did not have the capacity to cover the wide range of activities in each country, but we could talk to Brun González from Mexico, who described the major barriers of organising people who use drugs in the past: In this region, people who use drugs are viewed by the majority of the population as part of the “Narco culture,” the organised crime groups, and therefore violence. The double stigma of being seen as a murderer, rapist, and criminal, paired with the strong presence of the Catholic view of drug use as a sin, makes it very hard to come out as a user and represent the community. Having said that, there are many developments in the region, one of which is drug testing at party settings, which enables users to know what type of adulterants and potential poisons are present in their drugs.
Our first country to visit in the 9th episode is Russia, which is infamous for it’s inhumane drug policy and resistance for change. Prisons are full with drug users, and around 1.5 million people live with HIV, a majority of them are infected through injection drug use or their injecting partner, all because in Russia methadone substitution treatment is banned and harm reduction is not only not supported, but talking about it can be considered drug propaganda. What is less known is how vibrant and brave the user activist and harm reduction community is in Russia. Back in the early 2000s, a small group of desperate activists at FrontAIDS, carried coffins and chained themselves to the doors of the Mayors offices, to demand HIV medication. People who use drugs at that time were considered “socially unuseful,” therefore ineligible for treatment, and were basically left to die. Activists, like Sasha Volgina, were not sure that their efforts would be fruitful, but they did not want to die in silence. Their colorful and creative actions were the key to finally receiving ARV treatment, but they could not achieve the other aim of the movement, to gain access to life saving substitution treatment. Anya Sarang, director of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation tells us the exciting story of FrontAIDS, and how activists fight at the International Court of Human Rights for the right to access substitution treatment in Russia.
Georgia has one of the harshest drug policies in the world. You could get 8-20 years or life-time imprisonment for 1 gram of drug, and every year police randomly forced a hundred thousand people on the streets to provide their urine for drug testing. After a point Georgian youth became fed up. The movements of people who use drugs achieved decriminalisation of marijuana, and when police started raiding clubs with kalashnikovs, with the support of the White Noise Movement, tens of thousands of people marched to the streets, dancing, demanding drug policy change. David Subiliani and Paata Sabelashvili tell us the story how techno culture in Georgia became the backbone of fighting for human rights and human drug policy. Koka Labartkava from New Vector and his colleagues successfully campaigned against the large scale urine testing practice and managed to make Hepatitis C treatment widely available for people who use drugs.
Ukraine has a well established and organised user movement, with 800 individual members and 40 networks in the Ukrainian National Network of People Who Use Drugs, and there is a separate network for women who use drugs as well. Activists like Olga Byelyayeva and Anton Basenko, who are also members of the Eurasian Network of People who Use Drugs (ENPUD) successfully supported the availability of opiate substitution treatment, and continuously fight against stigma and discrimination of people who use drugs in the country.
The drug user rights movement in the United Kingdom, as in many other countries, started as a peer-led response to the HIV crisis. Mainliners was the first self-support group of people who use drugs living with HIV. After the passing of John Mordaunt (one of the founders of Mainliners) his widow, Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt set up the John Mordaunt Trust, to honour his life partner’s memory, to provide harm reduction and education for people who use drugs, and to advocate against their criminalisation and stigmatisation.
Mat Southwell worked at the Health Service as a harm reduction worker, and was taught community organising by gay men’s organisations. He helped set up drug user groups which were providing secondary needle exchange. He was part of the Crack Squad, which worked together with the Royal College of General Practice to help doctors approach crack use from a harm reduction perspective. With the MixMag dance drugs magazine, Mat and his peers introduced party harm reduction education. Mat also took part in the founding of EURONPUD, the European Network of People who Use Drugs, and now works at West Country Respect.
The International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) is a global peer-based organisation that seeks to promote the health and defend the rights of people who use drugs. INPUD was founded in 2006, when international activists who use drugs created the Vancouver Declaration. Judy Chang, the executive director of INPUD tells us the story of INPUD, and how this umbrella organisation of all the user networks worldwide works on the international level, to advocate for the rights of people who use drugs. They work at the UN level to bring the voices of people who use drugs into global decision-making spaces, such as the UNAIDS, WHO, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. They advocate for decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs, for harm reduction, hepatitis and tuberculosis treatment, and overdose prevention, and fight against the death penalty, extrajudicial killings, and other violations of the human rights of people who use drugs.
A documented history of the movement of people who use drugs is an accompanying research project drawing on accounts from 34 activists across the world in order to document the meanings that people who use drugs attribute to the movement, the challenges and tensions they perceive working within and outside the movement, and strategies for affecting positive change. The report seeks to amplify the voices of leading advocates and identify common features of the movement of people who use drugs, while also paying attention to the influence of contextual factors that may facilitate or impede progress towards the movement’s goals. In doing so, this report aims to celebrate the movement’s strength and resilience despite the overwhelming challenges, and consider the lessons learned from a generation of pioneering activists that may inspire a newer generation to build upon and extend their successes.
JUDY CHANG, MAURO GUARINIERI, PÉTER SÁROSI
ISTVÁN GÁBOR TAKÁCS
Directing, camera, editing
Canada - DAN CHARLEBOIS
Denmark - ROZBEH ZAVARI
South Africa - MICHAEL DUFFETT
USA - PAUL BYUN, RUSTY SQUIRE, GREG SCOTT
Australia - ZEBEDEE PARKES
India - SUNIL LUKAS
Indonesia - FAZRIE PERMANA, FERRI ZUL
Afghanistan - IQBAL SAPAND
Tanzania - ABDULRAZAK ABDALAH
Mexico - KARINA MUSCARINA
Ukraine - IGOR KUZMENKO
United Kingdom - NOÉMI HATALA
Italy - THOMAS RONCHETTI
This project was made possible by the financial support of the Bridging the Gaps Programme. This unique programme addresses the common challenges faced by sex workers, people who use drugs and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender peoplein terms of human rights violations and accessing much-needed HIV and health services. Go to www.hivgaps.org for more information.
Special thanks goes to Tonny van Montfoort, EuroNPUD representative on the INPUD Board, for driving this oral history project forward and setting out the creative vision.