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Taking Back What’s Ours! An oral history of the movement of people who use drugs

6 July, 2020

Read the accompanying research project – Taking Back What’s Ours! A documented history of the movement of people who use drugs

The global movement of people who use drugs has achieved exponential growth over the last four decades. Throughout the world drug user led advocacy has become a global phenomenon pushing to protect and defend the health and human rights of the drug using community and other people facing marginalisation in society. 

In collaboration with the Rights Reporter Foundations (Drugreporter), we are very excited to share “Taking Back What’s Ours!”, a new documentary film series which captures the history and genesis of the global movement of people who use drugs. In this series you will meet activists undertaking critical work in their communities, and learn how they navigate this work within the context of criminalisation, stigmatisation and oppression. 

The series is part of HIV2020 Online, running from July through October 2020. Starting on Monday, 6th of July 2020 we will be releasing one episode per week. The film has a total of 10 chapters and will cover countries in all regions of the world. You can join the conversation over social media by sharing the film each week with the hashtags #TakingBackWhatsOurs, #ReclaimTheResponse and #HIV2020. 

Special thanks to INPUD Board Member Tonny van Montfoort for driving this project and all the other outstanding activists featured in the series who are fighting for the rights of people who use drugs all over the world. 

Episode 1: The Netherlands, Belgium and France
In this first episode of the series we meet Theo van Dam, one of the central founding figures in the Netherlands drug user movement. We explore both the growth of the movement in the Netherlands and how it inspired similar movements in Belgium and France. 
Episode 2: Canada
In the second episode we explore the history of the movement in Canada, starting in the early 1990s with the formation of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) in response to the HIV crisis. The work of VANDU, the Toronto Drug Users Union, the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs, and other drug user activist groups have contributed significant changes in how people who use drugs are treated and access harm reduction in Canada. 
Episode 3: Germany, Denmark and Norway
Our third episode takes us to Germany, Denmark and Norway to learn how drug user activism has set precedents and models for organising all over the world. Dirk Schäffer discusses how the JES drug user network helped bring drug consumption rooms and heroin prescription programs to Germany, while the Danish Drug Users Union and drug user groups in Norway have helped change the political landscape of drug policy in a significant way. 
Episode 4: South Africa
The rapid development of harm reduction services in South Africa has been thanks to the work of people who use drugs in the country. The South African Network of People who Use Drugs has shifted the focus of South Africa’s drug strategy away from the goal of a drug free society and more towards supporting the drug using community. Angela McBride, Nelson Medeiros, and Shaun Shelly of SANPUD discuss how they have done this and the work still ahead. 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
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. 

This project was made possible by the financial support of the Bridging the Gaps Programme. This unique programme addresses the common challenges faced by sex workers, people who use drugs and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in terms of human rights violations and accessing much-needed HIV and health services. Go to for more information.