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The violent history of International Anti-Drug Day

Chinese officials prepare to incinerate drugs to mark International Anti-Drug Day.
Chinese officials prepare to incinerate drugs to mark International Anti-Drug Day.
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

A lot of people are unhappy with today's celebration of International Anti-Drug Day.

The International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, or International Anti-Drug Day for short, was established in 1987 by the United Nations. The day, marked on June 26 each year, is supposed to express the international community's determination to combat and eventually eradicate drug abuse. This year's theme: drug use disorders are preventable and treatable.

That seems innocuous enough, but many activists are taking issue with how some countries use the day to push their overzealous anti-drug efforts.

Around this time each year, several countries report punitive punishments, including the death penalty, against drug dealers. China, for one, used the lead-up to the day to unveil executions and other harsh punishments for drug traffickers in 2014, 2013, 2012, 2010, and 2009. Indonesia in 2008 touted International Anti-Drug Day as it resumed executions for drug traffickers after a four-year hiatus. Other countries, from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia, also use the death penalty as a punishment for drug dealers and users.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has sent mixed messages on these kinds of practices in the past. Yury Fedotov, the agency's chief, said the body opposes the death penalty, but he also praised Iran's anti-drug efforts even though the country executes drug dealers.

At the same time, the UN's anti-drug agency regularly speaks out against laxer anti-drug tactics. Fedotov, for instance, criticized Uruguay when the country legalized pot to cut a major source of revenue from drug cartels.

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, a director at the Open Society Foundations, contrasts International Anti-Drug Day with other UN-appointed days, such as World AIDS Day. While World AIDS Day is used by support groups to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and how to treat and prevent the disease, International Anti-Drug Day is used by some countries to show off how strict they are against drug offenders.

"Instead of a day that promotes solidarity … or good prevention methods," Malinowska-Sempruch explains, "what ended up happening is many governments used it to promote punitive measures in their drug policies."

If the day was used to have an honest conversation about preventing drug abuse instead of punishing drug trafficking, Malinowska-Sempruch says her organization would take no issue with International Anti-Drug Day.

Malinowska-Sempruch and other activists are now trying to take back the day by protesting in more than 80 cities around the world, including London, Warsaw, Mexico City, and Moscow. The idea behind the protests is to encourage support, not punishment, for people who use drugs.

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