Reflections on a webinar on drug policies and Indigenous rights

By Dania Putri

For decades, drug policy has been a vehicle of oppression violating Indigenous rights. From forced crop eradication to the ban on traditional uses of psychoactive plants, repressive drug policy has taken away lives and livelihoods, while ripping Indigenous peoples away from their ancestral identities and ways of living.

It was primarily for this reason that Indigenous rights’ advocates gathered online last month, on this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, to debate how we shall move forward and repair these harms in the webinar ‘The War on Drugs and the Denial of Indigenous Rights’.

Taking its cruellest form in the imperialist 'war on drugs', drug prohibition operates alongside other systems of oppression and exploitation, from corporate and state-funded land grabs or extractivism, to mass incarceration and globalised police power.

Such oppressive structures have disproportionately harmed Indigenous peoples and other communities of colour. For example, Tuari Potiki - Director of Maori Development at University of Otago – noted during the webinar that Indigenous Māori people make up only 16 percent of the population of Aotearoa/New Zealand, but nearly 60 percent of the country’s prison population is comprised of Māori people. The situation is similar, if not worse, for Indigenous peoples elsewhere – exacerbated by numerous systemic factors like poor access to healthcare and housing.

Lest we forget, these colonially rooted forms of oppression are not as old as humanity’s long and complex history with consciousness altering experiences, such as the medicinal and spiritual uses of psychoactive substances (either from plants, fungi, or even animals) and practices like trance-inducing dance, healing and other rituals core to a number of Indigenous traditions. Indigenous peoples, rights activists, and the drug reform movement must come together to ensure that Indigenous practices outlive prohibition.

The UN system – friend or foe?

There have been signs of progress when it comes to the UN system and its various mechanisms to support Indigenous rights. Note the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (despite it being ratified by only 24 states), and the importance of documents like the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by unanimity at the UN General Assembly, and later cited briefly in the Outcome Document of the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

Still, the contradictions and obstacles within the UN system are most starkly illustrated by the tensions between drug control and Indigenous rights. The foundational treaty of the UN drug control system, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, is inherently colonial and racist. It aims to eliminate the non-medical (including traditional and Indigenous) uses of substances grown and used by racialised communities, namely the coca leaf, cannabis, and opium.

During the webinar, the intervention of Bolivia’s Vice-President, David Choquehuanca (read by Ambassador Roberto Calzadilla) highlighted Bolivia’s 2009 request to amend the 1961 Convention to reclaim the cultural significance of the coca leaf. This move was blocked by a group of countries led by the United States. Bolivia then withdrew from the 1961 Convention and later signed it again with a reservation to coca prohibition. Though this reservation applies to Bolivia alone, a group of rich countries once again joined forces to attempt to thwart this gracious effort to repair this undemocratic system. Vice-President, David Choquehuanca concluded his intervention with a call on all countries that protested against Bolivia’s reservation to formally remove their objection, directing this in particular to Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The growing recognition that drug policies must be compliant with human rights provisions has started to encompass more seriously the need to ensure cultural, traditional, and Indigenous rights are not violated in the name of drug control. As Natalia Rebollo –  a human rights lawyer working at the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) – explained in the webinar, in Europe these dynamics have also helped advocates challenge the criminalisation of Andean and other migrants who use the coca leaf as part of their cultural practices.

Nevertheless, these efforts are not enough. To truly support Indigenous rights, we need to pay attention to the bigger picture and look beyond drug prohibition.

More than drug prohibition

The commodification of and value extraction from nature has been central to a wide array of imperial and colonial projects. This has included psychoactive plants like coca, cannabis, opium (in addition to other crops like tea and entire ecosystems like forests). Such projects not only brought immense wealth for the privileged few, but they also disrupted peoples’ relationship with nature, as for example shown in the transformation of cannabis culture in the Rif (Morocco) between 1912 and 1956.

These processes of empire-building through extraction and dispossession long preceded the global drug prohibition era (part of which was even shaped by the economic interests of pharmaceutical companies from the global north). In fact, these processes continue until today, affecting Indigenous communities albeit in more subtle ways.

Thus, we need to make visible (and seek to dismantle) unjust forms of value extraction and profit maximisation done on the backs of the oppressed, especially those happening in tandem with the global drug control regime. These include, but are not limited to, the growing power of corporations and investors (many of whom notorious for violating Indigenous rights) in psychedelic therapy, in legal cannabis, in the security-industrial complex, as well as in medicine and healthcare.

Though well beyond the scope of this piece, other related forms of dispossession should also be factored in, such as land grabs and forced displacement for the sake of agribusiness, ‘conservation’, and infrastructure projects. All these factors undermine the rights of Indigenous peoples as a whole, especially their right to self-determination as upheld by international human rights law. Such destructive forces have also worsened our climate crisis, while undermining Indigenous communities who have long served as the guardians of our planet (and whose sustainable practices might as well be the key to ensuring our future on Earth).

Beyond recognition: Indigenous liberation through a radically decolonial lens

As the global drug prohibition discourse slowly crumbles, so too does the taboo surrounding ancestral and Indigenous traditions involving psychoactive substances. In recognition of the medicinal potential of substances like psilocybin, researchers and companies are seeking funds and patents in the name of scientific and medical breakthroughs.

But we need so much more than recognition. Supporting Indigenous rights and liberation requires us to take a radically decolonial approach to systematically address the trans-sectoral and transnational nature of oppressive structures, which, though significantly influenced by European colonialism, extend well beyond it. Thirteenth century Egypt, for example, adopted anti-cannabis policies to suppress a movement deemed subversive by the elite. These policies were rarely enforced and did little to undermine cannabis’ medicinal importance, but the motives behind them were not far different from those of colonisers who banned peyote in Mexico in 1620, and surely of (neo)colonial and imperial powers in the 20th and21st century.

More importantly, supporting Indigenous rights and self-determination means rallying around a communal approach, in which we are all in this together, no one is left behind, and everything is shared’, as highlighted in the webinar by Freddy Condo Riveros, Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In the case of drugs, we need to challenge neoliberal developments in psychedelic research that use intellectual property to privatise and commodify – rather than respect and honour –  Indigenous cultures. We also need to support Indigenous growers in fighting neocolonial cannabis policies anchored in accumulation, as we have witnessed in many Latin American and African countries (especially those with fertile soil and abundant resources long coveted by global north elites). As voiced by Greek Zweni (traditional health practitioner and spokesperson for Umzimvubu Farmers Support Network), Indigenous growers in Mpondoland might lose their income and/or be subject to further criminalisation due to South Africa’s new cannabis bill. Though praised by some, the bill neglects the fact that only the rich few are privileged enough to grow cannabis solely for their own consumption, while much of South Africa’s rural poor grow cannabis to make ends meet.

In line with this collective spirit of Indigenous critique of modern society, we also need to abolish structures of exploitation to restore the communal uses of land, the rivers, and the seas. We need to fight for biodiversity, epistemic justice, reparations, and so much more. The struggle for epistemic justice is a controversial but crucial one – for decolonial struggles in general, and Indigenous liberation in particular. This requires taking a critical (albeit constructive) stance towards the international human rights corpus and Western biomedicine, whose practices should integrate Indigenous epistemologies.

Needless to say, Indigenous leaders and communities around the globe have no other option but to reclaim their space. Tuari Potiki, in his rationale behind the International Indigenous Drug Policy Network, underlines:

‘As Indigenous peoples, we need to get together ourselves… put our own motions and recommendations forward… rather than constantly having to knock on their door, rather than continuing being a subgroup or a subset of another group, or having to try to convince people who have shown through history to be unwilling to change their mind – that there’s a different way of doing things…’

As noted by Freddy Condo Riveros, Indigenous cultures ‘respect life, harmony, reciprocity, and complementarity.’ Like them, we need to stop operating in silos and acknowledge the interconnectedness of today’s crises, from drug-related imprisonment to forest fires. Fulfilling Indigenous rights in drug policy is an important step. But in the long run, in order to achieve Indigenous liberation, we need to go beyond drugs – for this is key to ending all the interdependent systems of oppression that have torn us apart.