This article was originally posted, in Spanish, on the Animal Político website.

The populations affected by punitive drug policies must attend international forums. The voices of women such as myself, formerly deprived of liberty, as well as female users, growers, couriers, dealers, relatives – among many others – must be heard.

By Natacha Lopvet *

From the grey walls behind which I served a ten-year sentence for transporting drugs, and which I left two years ago, I travelled towards the tall buildings of the United Nations. The place was overseen by tight security, a space where protests are not welcome and where diplomacy and the language of protocol are befitting. The only colourful detail lay in the flags that undulated to the beat of the Viennese climate. There, I achieved what would seem to be an unreachable dream to any person deprived of liberty in the world.

At the 62nd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), I had many questions, criticisms and uncertainties. I witnessed about a hundred roundtable discussions and conversations on drug policies around the world. I was struck by the large quantity of reports, data, scientific evidence, testimonies and accounts reflecting the problems found in each country, in each region, on this issue.

While civil society organisations can consider themselves to be guardians of democracy – by reminding governments of their duties as States – their massive presence this year reflected (among other things) an increase in humiliations and human rights violations, lack of freedoms, impoverishment, criminalisation, mass incarceration, structural failings and the violence faced by hundreds of communities throughout the world, because of punitive drug policies implemented in different countries. Although many might not appreciate it, civil society organisations play a leading role at the United Nations. They are the ones that bring information that contrasts with that submitted by governments. They are the ones that build bridges between affected communities and UN agencies, since most governments refuse to implement public policies that protect human rights for all.

Although organisations are building these bridges, it is also necessary for the populations affected by punitive drug policies to attend these meetings. The voices of women such as myself, formerly deprived of liberty, as well as women who use, grow, transport and deal drugs and their families – among many others – must be heard at these forums. Together, we observe how urgent it is for delegates to hear not only about the prevention and treatment of drug dependence, but also about the multiple human rights violations caused by mass incarceration arising from punitive drug policies.

The role of international agencies cannot be limited to inspecting prison conditions. They must approach those who live in those prisons and listen to the voices of the women affected by these policies. They must check under which criteria they were incarcerated, verify that their human rights are protected, and advocate for addressing the harms done by authorities, as well as for creating measures for non-repetition.

But there is a disconnect with reality. This can be seen in the traditional zero-tolerance drug policies implemented by various governments. Over the years, dozens of women, mothers and young people have been sent to prison for possessing or transporting drugs, destroying families and condemning women to search for a life of dignity amid the violence created by the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government is hardening its prohibitionist policy. In light of this, it is surprising that the international agencies in charge of UN drug policy did not call for a reduction of the harms precisely caused by the failed war on drugs strategy, through the legalisation, regulation and/or decriminalisation of drugs, and the prevention of drug dependence. The most emblematic proposal is that focusing on the treatment of drug dependence – it is not a substantive proposal but rather a mere plaster to tackle drug use while ignoring the clear consequences of the war on drugs from the past decade, including mass incarceration.

Once again, I am disappointed to see that prisons are managed the same way countries are being administered. I have now been able to confirm this is also the case at global level. The proposals, initiatives and actions presented there do not include a profound or tangible structural change that would improve the situation of people in prison settings, those who are in conflict with the law for offences against health.

The delegates representing various governments refused to answer these questions. UN agencies had a hard time recognising the failure of the past decade, and did not present concrete proposals to address the disastrous and unchecked spread of private prison systems.

Using my own experience and the hundreds of stories I heard during my time in prison, during the event I tried to put forward the need for proposals focused on people, and on the impact of incarceration on their lives, their psychological well-being, their families, towns, provinces, cities and society as a whole.

To ensure that public policies do evolve, those who implement them must change as well. During my stay in Vienna, I saw that UN officials were not necessarily moved by the reports conveying the harms caused by the war on drugs, and they had little access to the testimonies of people directly affected. How can we advocate more effectively to achieve a quicker change in drug policy? It seems that reports and figures are no longer enough. For the next session, it looks like we will have to come with a large delegation of formerly incarcerated women, women who use, grow, transport and deal drugs and entire families so that this crisis – and the urgent need to modify failed drug policies around the world – are finally acknowledged.


* Natacha Lopvet is a Project Officer at EQUIS: Justice for Women (@EQUISJusticia).