Events in Uganda this week highlight how drug policies continue to be used as a mechanism for social control and the criminalisation of marginalised communities.
Shortly after midnight on November 11th, 127 people were arrested at Ram Bar, one of the few LGBTQIA+ friendly bars in Kampala. The arrests were made by the Ugandan police, army officials, and Local Defense Units who rounded off everyone and took them to the central police station. At the time of writing over 60 people are still confirmed to be in police custody.
The official justification for this mass arrest was for the use of banned substances, specifically the smoking of shisha and opium. In an interview with VOA, Patrick Onyango, the Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesperson, said police received intelligence that Ram Bar is a hub for the illicit use of controlled substances; the people arrested will be charged under the Tobacco Control Act (2015). Those found guilty for using shisha or opium can be fined $130 or imprisoned for up to six months.
However many on the ground including Frank Mugisha, the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, argue that this is clearly an attack on the LGBTQIA+ community, with drug laws being utilised as a means to criminalise and intimidate. In an interview with VOA, he noted that Ram Bar is one of the few public spaces to do outreach with the LGBTQIA+ community and at the time of arrest, a health meeting and celebration was taking place.
An anonymous source desribes their experience of the arrest: "The whole time it was incredibly abusive, verbally and physically. I got slapped around, kicked and so did a bunch of others. They were saying very homophobic things – we are going to eradicate people like you, how dare you, you're making us look bad", Alice McCool reports.