“Six years ago, a friend who I often smoked [cannabis] with, informed the police about my drug use. I was arrested and charged for possession. I was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. I have already done six years…”

Affectionately known as Togoman, this 53-year-old farmer started using marijuana in his native home Ghana at the age of 19. Not considering himself a problematic consumer or a burden to society, Togman used cannabis to relax and ease his aching body from laborious work. Cannabis, he reports, enabled him to eat and sleep. He never drank alcohol.

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This story is part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s latest report titled, The World Drug Perception Problem: Countering Prejudices about People who Use Drugs. For fear of further stigma and reprisal, Togoman chooses to remain anonymous, but wants to represent those facing harsh punishment and other consequences  as a result of consuming an alternative drug to alcohol.

“The sale of marijuana within prison walls is even higher than what goes on in open society. Since my arrest and incarceration, life has been very difficult for me and my family. I am really suffering in prison.”

Left with no one to pay for their tuition, Togoman’s children have both dropped out of school and the family’s landlord terminated their lease due to unemployment. To make things worse, these circumstances led to Korshie, Togoman’s son, ending up on the street, forced to seek money as a hawker.

Putting people who use drugs at centre of the discussion, the Global Commission’s report features a range of personal testimonials, giving necessary insight into which substances people like to consume and why.

Whilst society seems to have no problem with the use of alcohol, far less harmful substances are not deemed a good fit culturally, despite being conducive to individual needs.

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The United Nations drug controls are not based on science or evidence-based, more constructed on a foundation of perception and harsh penalties, such as those faced by Togoman, are often the result.

In 2001 Portugal decriminalised all drug possession and as a result, Teresa – a 22-year-old from Lisbon – has never faced repercussions for her drug consumption. Having completed her studies in social work, Teresa doesn’t consume cannabis or alcohol, but instead prefers to limit herself to minimal use (three to five times a year) of amphetamines, MDMA, and 2C-B. These substances fit with her love of psy-trance music.

“I used to take a lot more drugs than I do now, but over time I learned to choose the right moments. I used to like psychedelics a lot, but nowadays I prefer stimulants. I always do a lot of research about the drugs I consume, and about the best way to do them – regarding the amounts, routes of administration and interactions between them.”

Harm reduction is a system that allows consumers of all drugs – whether alcohol, tobacco, or those considered ‘illegal drugs’ – to safely administer their chosen substance with minimal harm. The only way we’re able to address harm minimisation in society is to have a greater understanding of the various and ever-developing substances that are hitting the market. Global drug deaths are increasing, and yet the drug-induced death rate in Portugal has plummeted to five times lower than the European Union average. This makes a strong case that openness and health-based alternatives to drug policy have a positive effect in mitigating potential harms. 

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Teresa fully acknowledges the consumption of her chosen drugs to her friends and suspects her family are also aware,

“I don’t hide it from them as I’m not ashamed of it and consider it to be an important part of my life… fortunately I’m young enough to have never had to deal with criminalisation of my use.”

Despite progressive policies that no longer prosecute drug consumers for their possession, Teresa does recognise the need for more work to be done in the pursuit of harm and drug death reduction.

“It would be nice to have a permanent place where I can have my drugs tested for purity and content before taking them, so that I know for sure what I’m putting in my body. Drug checking is allowed under the Portuguese law, and we have it at some music festivals, but there isn’t a permanent location that is open all year.”

Drug testing facilities are becoming a necessary and welcomed presence at festivals. In 2017, The Loop was a fixture at many festivals in the UK, providing drug testing and harm reduction advice to people who who wanted to know what their drugs contained. So far, there have been no fatalities when The Loop was in attendance, but tragically, there were deaths at the festivals that did not have their service on site.

As the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report makes clear, we have reached a point in the international conversation where the voice of people who use drugs can be heard.  We need a culture of openness to ensure their safety and to pull back the layer of stigma which can needlessly ruin lives. 

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