Nice People Take Drugs.
That's the name of a campaign launched by Release, a nonprofit service and advocacy organization in the United Kingdom. The campaign aims to inspire a more honest discussion and approach to drug use in our society and also to highlight the stigma faced by people who use or have used illicit drugs.
I first heard about the campaign when I received a call from someone at Release who was coming to New York and other U.S. cities to take photos of Americans holding up signs with the text "Nice People Take Drugs." These photos of ordinary people identifying as drug users were also snapped in other cities around the world.
The campaign also includes images of elected officials in the UK and the USA with quotes about their drug use. They feature a wide range of cultural, political, and business leaders such as Oprah Winfrey, President Obama, Governor Schwarzenegger, Mayor Bloomberg, Sarah Palin, Richard Branson, and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
There is something simple and powerful about the Nice People Take Drugs campaign. Right off the bat, it challenges people to think about their image of drug users. There are a range of stereotypes when it comes to drug users: On one end of spectrum there are the lazy, stupid couch potatoes who sit around eating Cheetos. Then there is the image of the homeless addict panhandling on the street.
But if you think about it for a second, despite a 40-year "war on drugs" and elected officials calling for a "drug free society," our society is swimming in drugs. Coffee, soda, cigarettes, Prozac, weed, steroids, Ritalin, alcohol, are just a sample of the drugs that people take to get through the day. Yet only certain people and certain drugs are stigmatized, while others are normalized.
Throughout recorded history, people have inevitably altered their consciousness to fall asleep, wake up, deal with stress, and for creative and spiritual purposes.
Sure, drugs can be fun. How many of us enjoy having some drinks and going out dancing? How many of us enjoy a little smoke after a nice dinner with friends? Many people bond with others or find inspiration alone while under the influence of drugs. On the flip side, many people self-medicate to try to ease the pain in their lives. How many have us have had too much to drink to drown our sorrows over a breakup or some other painful event? How many of us smoke cigarettes or take prescription drugs to deal with anxiety, stress, or physical pain?
Why are some drugs legal and other drugs illegal today? It's not based on any scientific assessment of the relative risks of these drugs -- it's based on who is associated with these drugs. The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws, in the South in the early 1900s, were directed at black men. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest during the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, Latino and black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.
While it is clear is that drug use doesn't discriminate and the majority of us are using one drug or another, the reality is that the war on drug users does discriminate. More than 1.6 million people were arrested last year on nonviolent drug charges, and the vast majority of these arrests were for low-level possession, not selling or trafficking. In New York City, "moderate" Mayor Bloomberg's police arrested close to 50,000 people for marijuana possession in 2009 -- and 87 percent of those arrested were black and Latino, despite similar rates of marijuana use as whites. Nationally, African Americans are arrested 13 times the rates of whites even thought they use and sell drugs at similar rates. Most people use drugs, but mostly brown and black people go to jail for it.
The stigma and fear that people who use illicit drugs feel is real. If people admit or it is discovered that they use illegal drugs they can lose their job, their housing, and even their children. It is mind-blowing to think that someone who decides to smoke a joint on the weekend, something that can be much safer than drinking or other legal drugs, must fear for their freedom and their family.
Some brave individuals who use drugs, and some organizations, are starting to organize. In New York and San Francisco groups made up of people who use drugs are coming together to demand respect and a seat at the table when it comes to protecting their health and their lives. In New York a dynamic group named Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL) was instrumental in passing a law that expands access to clean syringes in order to reduce HIV and Hep C, and promotes proper disposal of used syringes without fear of arrest from the police.
We have to learn how to live with drugs, because they aren't going anywhere. Drugs have been around for thousands of years and will be here for thousands more. We need to educate people about the possible harms of drug use, offer compassion and treatment to people who have problems, and leave in peace the people who are not causing harm. And we need to take action against the incarceration of so many of our brothers and sisters who are suffering behind bars because of the substance that they choose to use.
Nice People Take Drugs. That's why the war on drugs is a war on us.
Follow Tony Newman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TonyNewmanDPA