On the final day on UNGASS 2016, the UK’s Transform Drug Policy Foundation brought their Anyone’s Child campaign to a packed conference room at the UN.

In stark contrast to an event they were due to be involved in earlier in the day – ‘Drug Policy, Dirty Money, and Development: Why the UNGASS should care about the Panama Papers’ – which had to be called off after only a handful of people (myself included) managed to get through the police barriers to attend, this deeply emotional event was so popular that many attendees ended up sat on the floor, or stood around the edges of the room.

The question being asked here was ‘How can the international drug control system provide a better tomorrow for today’s youth?’. Unsurprisingly, the resounding answer was that, given the abject failure of the UNGASS outcome document to address the important issues, it can’t. At least not without wholesale changes.

This was not the first time I have covered an Anyone’s Child event for VolteFace. Back in December last year I attended their very first public event in Bristol, where I heard heartbreaking tales of loss from what at the time was a fairly small number of speakers.

What was striking about this event was how quickly the organisation has grown into a truly global movement. It’s a sign of how powerful the testimonies of those who have suffered the greatest loss of all in the war on drugs are, that they have, in a short space of time, managed to forge connections and add speakers from as far afield as Belgium, the US, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, and Afghanistan.

Jane Slater, the co-ordinator of the Anyone’s Child Campaign, opened the proceedings with thanks to the government of the Czech Republic, who sponsored the event. “If the war on drugs was going to be won on evidence,” she explained, before getting things underway properly, “we would have won already.” The message was clear: Governments aren’t listening to the cold hard facts, but when presented with the human face of what their drug control policies have done, they might just think again. I’m inclined to agree with her.

Image taken by author
Image taken by author

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could witness these stories firsthand and not be profoundly moved by them. From Cara Levan, whose partner Jake overdosed and died just under two years ago after relapsing, as Cara explained, “in a city where they didn’t know any drug dealers,” and yet took “only an hour” to find and purchase supposedly ‘controlled’ drugs, to Maricela, whose story was deeply shocking, and yet is far from an unusual one in her home country of Mexico.

Maricela’s life has been utterly torn apart by the violence engulfing much of her country, fuelled by the war on drugs. In March 2014, her 19-year-old son, Gerson Quevedo Orozco was kidnapped while in a convenience store with friends in Veracruz. Having paid the ransom demanded of them by the cartel, Maricela’s other son, Alan, and her daughter’s boyfriend Miguel, decided to try and find their brother after being tipped off about his whereabouts.

But the tip off was not what it seemed. They were followed, and shot dead. Alan and Miguel became part of the more than 100,000 deaths in Mexico since the drug war began.

Maricela is now forced, thanks to the ineptitude (or worse) of the Mexican state, to search for her son’s missing body in clandestine graves, alongside thousands of other mothers who will not find peace until their loved ones are returned to them. She places all responsibility for this senseless tragedy at the feet of the authorities.

There were too many stories told at Thursday’s event to do them all justice, although they all deserve to be heard by as many people as possible. Instead I will focus on two of perhaps the most telling.

The first is Peter, a police officer from Belgium. His relationship with his brother – a drug user who was arrested many times before his untimely death 9 years ago – forced him to confront the contradictions of drug policy. He had to make a decision: To be a brother, or to be a police officer. He explained that back then he was more of a policeman. “I was a coward.”

But he didn’t always put his job first. He told a story of the time that his brother was kicked out of a psychiatric hospital after a non-fatal overdose, because they refused to treat drug users. Despite being a police officer, Peter went to search for him, picked him up off the streets, and dropped him off with his dealer. The war on people that he was being asked to fight placed him time and again in an impossible situation, but despite the breakdown in his relationship with his brother that it caused, they were still able to occasionally laugh about it.

The final story I will recount is that of Donna May, a Canadian mother who lost her Daughter to complications caused by her drug abuse. Exactly 44 months since making the impossible decision to switch off her child’s life support, Donna’s campaign for change was recognised at the highest level when the Canadian Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, addressed the General Assembly, telling them:

In preparation for this event, I met with a group of NGOs… But the most powerful voice of all belonged to a mother.  She was there to tell the story of her young daughter, who lost her life due to complications of substance use. She described watching her daughter slip away, as she struggled to access the treatment and services that may have saved a beautiful, fragile life.  Stories like this are far too commonplace. Today, I stand before you as Canada’s Minister of Health, to acknowledge that we must do better for our citizens

This final story is a vindication of the work done by campaigns like Anyone’s Child.

Their tireless efforts, and their tragic stories, have the ability to affect real change where it matters. Canada have pledged to not only legalise and regulate cannabis, but also to introduce further supervised injection sites, in yet another sign that the old drug control conventions are crumbling and will not be allowed to stem the flow of change.

The final word should go to Donna May, who told the IDPC:

Today was the fulfilment of my promise to my daughter that in death her life would have meaning. Today I am proud to be Canadian. I hope other member states watch closely as Canada leads by example and provides the model that will go far toward saving the lives of our children

Deej Sullivan

#VFNYC

Follow Deej @sullivandeej

Want to comment or contribute?

Join the debate on twitter @VolteFaceHub