Taking back what's ours! - An oral history of the movement of people who use drugs


Taking back what's ours! - An oral history of the movement of people who use drugs

5 August 2020

In this 10-episode series, Drugreporter and INPUD document how people who use drugs around the world have organised and formed collectives and unions to protect and defend the health and human rights of their community.

Episode 1: The Netherlands, Belgium and France

Since January 1981, when the first drug user group ‘Junkie-bond’ was established in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the drug user movement has grown exponentially: people who use drugs have continued to organise and form collectives and unions to protect and defend the health and human rights of their community. This struggle for autonomy, self-determination and empowerment of people who use drugs has been, and is, a global phenomenon.

Episode 2. Canada

In the early ‘90s the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) was formed in response to the HIV crisis and overdoses among people who use drugs. The tireless work of Ann Livingston and VANDU contributed to significant changes in how people who use drugs were treated in the city. Among the various harm reduction services that formed, they contributed to the opening of the first legal drug consumption room in North America and trials with heroin prescription programs.

With the emergence of fentanyl in the illegal drug market, the overdose epidemic skyrocketed, and in 2018, more than 10,300 Canadians died as a result of an apparent opioid-related overdose. Activists like Zoë Dodd from the Toronto Drug Users Union and the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society reacted by opening up illegal overdose prevention sites, saving many, many lives. Their civil disobedience has changed the landscape of Canadian Drug Policy: those illegal sites eventually became legal.

Many people are still dying every day in Canada, and drug user activist groups like VANDU, the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, and the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD) are fighting for a safe drug supply, so people in need have access to an unpolluted source of their drug of choice.

Episode 3. Germany, Denmark and Norway

This year JES network in Germany celebrated its 30th anniversary, and is one of the oldest drug user groups in the world. Dirk Schäffer – a member of the network – tells us how with the support of Deutsche Aidshilfe, the JES drug user network contributed to the availability of harm reduction services in Germany, including drug consumption rooms and heroin prescription programs.

The drug user groups in Denmark and Norway were also crucial to achieve the opening of these kinds of life-saving services in their own countries. The Danish Drug Users Union (Brugerforeningen), under the leadership of Jørgen Kjær, has been a model for drug user organisations all over the world. The drug user groups in Norway, led by Arild Knutsen from the Association for Humane Drug Policy, have changed the drug policy landscape significantly. Drug consumption rooms are available, heroin prescription and other innovative substitution programs are planned, and a major drug policy change is happening right now, with a move away from punitive measures and towards a more humane and evidence based decriminalisation model, based on the experiences of Portugal.

Episode 4. South Africa

The rapid development of harm reduction services in recent years in South Africa has largely been influenced by the movement of people who use drugs in the country. 10 years ago, there was no needle exchange program in the country, and now there are multiple, providing 2 million sterile syringes a year for people who inject drugs. The South African Network of People who Use Drugs, supported by the non-governmental organisation TB HIV Care, tirelessly campaigns for the humanisation of people who use drugs. They managed to change the aim of the South African drug strategy to focus on providing support for problematic drug use, rather than creating a drug free society. People who use drugs are consulted when developing the country’s drug strategy. Their advocacy for visible policing resulted in fewer arbitrary arrests, and the South African Police Services stopped the use of quota systems, which required a certain number of drug users to be arrested. There is still a lot to do to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs, and to end the racial injustice and discrimination of women, which are widespread in the country. Watch the film featuring Angela McBride, Nelson Medeiros, and Shaun Shelly of SANPUD.

Disclaimer: SANPUD believes in representativity and diversity. This film features three of the four founders and does not reflect the current diversity of the board, staff, or membership of SANPUD.

Episode 5. United States of America.

In the country which coined the term "War on Drugs", people who use drugs have been fighting against extreme levels of criminalisation and stigmatisation for decades. Despite this, drug user activists have achieved impressive victories over the last several years. In this episode Louise Vincent (Urban Survivors Union), Robert Suarez (VOCAL-NY and Urban Survivors Union), and Hollis (San Francisco Drug Users Union) discuss both their achievements and the work still to be done as North America continues to suffer from unprecedented levels of overdose stemming from decades of neglectful policy.

Episode 6: Australia and New Zealand

This episode features four pioneers of the drug user movement in Australia: Jude Byrne from the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), Annie Madden and Charles Henderson from the New South Wales Users and AIDS Association (NUAA) and Geoffrey Ward from the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy (CAHMA). The movement has achieved some incredible successes since the 1980s, including the opening of medically supervised injecting rooms in Sydney and Melbourne, and their work is far from over.

Episode 7: Asia

In Asia, the mere existence of drug user groups is a testament to the resilience and strength of the community. Despite dealing with torturous labor camps and detention centers, capital punishment, extrajudicial killings, and incredibly harsh societal stigmatisation, the movement of people who use drugs all over the diverse region have achieved incredible victories. In this episode Anand Chabumgbam and Bikas Guring (Asian Network of People who Use Drugs), Simon W. Beddoe (Indian Harm Reduction Association), and Edo Agustian (PKNI) discuss how they have called aattention to human rights violations and expanded harm reduction services within these conditions.

Episode 8: Afghanistan, Tanzania and Mexico

This episode takes us to three different regions to examine familiar themes on the subject of drug user organizing. In Afghanistan, Abdur Raheem Rejaey (Bridge Hope Health) shows how his organisation is distributing syringes to people who inject drugs under extremely harsh and neglectful conditions. In Tanzania, Happy Assan (Tanzania Network of People who Use Drugs) talks about amending her country's drug bill in 2015 to lessen penalties for drug offences. In Mexico, Brun Gonzalez (Latin American Network of People who Use Drugs & INPUD Board Chair) discusses some of the major barriers for drug user organising including the false equivilancy of people who use drugs with "Narco culture", amidst other forms of religious and cultural stigma.

Episode 9: Russia, Georgia and Ukraine

In this episode we meet activists in three countries with some of the most harsh drug laws in the world. In Russia, which is infamous for both its punitive drug policies and resistance to advocacy as a whole, there is still a vibrant harm reduction community dating back to the story of FrontAIDS activists in the early 2000s. In Georgia, youth movements of people who use drugs and those in the techno music scene have led tens of thousands of people into the streets demanding change after state raids on clubs in the name of drug prohibition. In Ukraine, a well established drug user movement has set an example for others in the region while continuously fighting against the same levels of stigma and discrimination felt by others in the region.

Episode 10: The United Kingdom and INPUD

The final episode of the series focuses on activists from the UK and the International Network of People who Use Drugs. Just as in many other countries we've visited, the drug user rights movement in the UK started as a response to the HIV crisis. Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, the widow of Mainliners founder John Mordaunt, discusses some of the history of the first peer-led support group of people who use drugs living with HIV. Meanwhile Mat Southwell discusses his work putting together numerous drug user groups in both the UK and Europe as a whole after learning community organising through gay men's organisations. The series concludes by talking to Judy Chang, Executive Director of INPUD, about bringing all of the voices you've heard throughout the series to the international level to advocate for the rights of people who use drugs.