A new way of talking about drugs

It has been a landmark few weeks in the campaign to end the failed war on drugs. In the US, voters in Oregon and Alaska followed the example set by Colorado and Washington and decided to support the regulated sale of cannabis. And the people of California approved a ballot measure that puts an end to the ongoing criminalization of most non-violent drug users and take steam off California’s overcrowded prisons.

Even in the UK, the House of Commons (for the first time) addressed drug policy in a frank debate that saw remarkable cross-party consensus on the need for reform.

Image by Rebecca Bowring

These developments give me hope that change is possible. But the road ahead is steep. One of the biggest challenges remains language. Drug policy debates rely heavily on the vocabulary of prosecution, punishment and enforcement. We boast of arrests made, sentences handed down and shipments seized, we lament crime and death rates. Such language reduces real people to figures in a police report; it dehumanizes and distorts the real human stories behind the war on drugs.

I’ve always been a strong proponent of evidence-based policies that are rooted in sound science, so statistics (and their correct interpretation) are very important. But at the same time, I’ve long felt that the discourse, especially the big policy debate, is lacking a tone of compassion, empathy and care.

Image by LAT Photographic

People who struggle with drugs and suffer the consequences of our misguided policies are sons or daughters; they are parents, siblings, or grandchildren. They have a face and a name, and I know that our response to the drug wars would be a different one if we were reminded that criminalization and marginalization are happening to real people with real stories.

Ironically, it is often the opponents of drug policy reform who use emotion to their benefit, appealing to policy makers and pundits alike to protect their children from the danger of drugs. 

Well, we know now that prohibition and enforcement have done absolutely nothing to protect children (or anyone else, for that matter). So, it’s time to take back the narrative and share some of the real human impacts.

This is why I am heartened by a touching new project in the UK. Launched by Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Anyone’s Child: Families for Safer Drug Control seeks to put a human face on the costs of the war on drugs and show the public that it is the current approach which is endangering their children, and that legal regulation would help keep them safe. 

Image from Anyone’s Child

Supported by the very brave and wonderful Anne-Marie Cockburn, whose 15-year old daughter Martha  Martha died tragically of an ecstasy overdose last year, Anyone’s Child will build a network of families speaking out on the urgent need for drug policy reform, tell the stories of families who have been harmed by the war on drugs, expose new audiences to the arguments for reform, and lobby MPs, policy makers and other influential figures to bring about change so urgently needed.

It speaks the language we ought to be speaking when it comes to the failed policies that continue to harm millions around the world. 

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