In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the Single Convention, NGOs joined together in a campaign to count the costs of the global war on drugs – that is, to urge governments to undertake a a transparent review of the effectiveness and unintended consequences of current drug policies. The HCLU is producing seven thematic movies on the seven major costs of the war on drugs. This film features one of them - the promotion of stigma and discrimination – please watch the movie and share it with your peers!
In 1997 Robert Pickton, a former pig farmer, invited a sex worker to his farm in British Columbia. After having sex with her, he slapped a handcuff on her left hand, and stabbed her in the abdomen. She was able to stab Pickton in return, and escaped. Later, both she and Pickton were treated at the same hospital, where staff used a key they found in Pickton's pocket to remove the handcuffs from the woman's wrist. However, the police released Pickton, because the woman had drug addiction issues and prosecutors believed her too unstable for her testimony to help secure a conviction. They were wrong. Pickton was a serial killer who lured sex workers to his farm to kill them. Almost 50 sex workers had to die before the police finally took action and arrested the guy! The family members of missing women tipped off the police about Pickton several times, but the police did not listen to them, saying that drug users are irresponsible and they are always on the move. If the police had not disregarded the community of drug users in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, they would have caught Pickton much sooner. Erving Goffman defined stigma as 'the process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity'. This story is a clear signal of the terrible damage stigma and discrimination does to our societies: people who use drugs are treated as second class citizens whose words cannot be believed, whose rights can be violated for the "public good”.
Where does this stigma come from? It comes from the negative image our society has fabricated around illicit drugs and drug users, in order to keep young people off drugs and to support a drug policy based on fear. If you look at the conventional messages on drugs, most of what you see is fear mongering - despite the countless studies that show that scare tactics are not an effective way of prevention. What is more, these messages are responsible for generating more stigma and harming the same young people they are intended to help!
According to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, adopted in 1961, the aim of drug control policies is to protect public health. This is far from reality. In the US, the birthplace of drug prohibition, the war on drugs was designed as a form of social control and institutionalized racism. Despite similar rates of drug usage, African-American men in the US are sent to prison on drug charges at 13.4 times the rate of white men, resulting in one in nine 20- to 34-year-olds being incarcerated on any given day, primarily as a result of drug law enforcement. Ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups of society are disproportionally hit by the global war on drugs.
There are organizations fighting against stigma and discrimination in many fields: women's rights, LGBT communities, indigenous people, people living with HIV, vulnerable children, sex workers and ethnic minorities. Still, very few of these NGOs are aware of the importance of the war on drugs dimension for their communities. If you happen to belong to one of these NGOs, please consider joining our campaign!