Manuel Rueda/Fusion

NEW YORK—  David Anderson drove to Manhattan towing a trailer that he converted into a replica jail cell. He parked the cage-like structure in a square facing the United Nations, slung a hammock inside the bars and spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday hanging out in his “cell” with a sign that read “jail is not a drug policy.”

Next to Anderson, a group of activists held a 20-foot banner that called on Obama to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of prohibited substances and denounced high incarceration rates for drug users in the United States. A few feet away a Mexican man, a parent of one of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, held a picture of his missing son, whom he claims was kidnapped by policemen fighting drug cartels.

Manuel Rueda/Fusion

“We want to end the drug war, and we want to show people that there’s a big problem here,” said Anderson, who drove up from North Carolina to protest outside UNGASS, a special UN meeting on drug policy.


Like many activists on site, Anderson couldn’t go inside the UN to discuss his views with world diplomats. But he hoped that his protest in the street would highlight opposition to drug-control policies based on criminalization.

“I don’t know what will come of the meeting,” Anderson said. “But my goal is to remind them that we’re still here.”

Diplomats from 130 nations met in New York this week to review the UN’s drug treaties and chart a new path for global drug policy. The special session on drug policy, the first since 1998, was convened at the request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala—three countries that have suffered overwhelmingly from drug related violence.


The meeting started on Tuesday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto calling for a move “away from prohibition” and toward policies that focus on prevention instead. The 130 nations sitting in the General Assembly also voted on an agreement that calls for improved treatment for drug addicts, and undoes previous pledges to make the world “drug-free.”

But the agreement —called an “outcome document”— does not eliminate current treaties that ban narcotics. The prohibitionist framework that has shaped drug policy over the past century will basically remain in place, assuring that the bloody wars will continue for now.

At the behest of countries like Iran and Russia that have taken a hardline approach on drug policy, the document also fails to condemn governments that are executing their citizens for selling or consuming drugs.

A photograph of an Iranian woman sentenced to death for drug use, at the Museum of Drug Policy

“The UN has created a system that marginalizes the most vulnerable people,” said Kasia Malinowska, director of the Global Drug Policy Program at Open Society Foundations. “When I travel to Colombia and have a conversation with coca growers who are very poor, and see how the whole might of the Colombian military with U.S. funding comes down on them, it seems ludicrous to me, like someone is not thinking logically.”

Faced with what they see as slow progress at the UN, and the organization’s reluctance to take a stand against drug prohibition, activists in New York came up with a series of ways to energize the drug policy debate and get regular people involved.

On Manhattan’s east end, just a few blocks away from the UN, an anti-prohibition group called the Psymposia network hosted storytelling sessions where attendants could speak about their experiences with psychedelic drugs. The idea behind theses sessions, according to organizer Lex Pelger, was to “de-stigmatize” these substances and talk about the “thorny road out” of the drug war.

Open Society Foundations arranged a temporary exhibit known as the “Museum of Drug Policy,” which included some 70 works of art related to drug policy, as well as a space where people met for panel discussions, and movie screenings.

Handkerchiefs woven with the names of Mexican drug war victims hung from the ceiling at the exhibit

The 16,000-square foot gallery also featured a room called the “truth booth,” where people could speak into a camera about their experiences with narcotics substances, policing, or anything else related to the drug policy debate.

Manuel Rueda/Fusion

“This place is here for people to talk about the issues and meet with each other, and not feel left out of the conversation,” said Michael Skolnik, the exhibit’s curator.


The drug policy museum also included a replica prison cell, a wall full of letters written by people incarcerated for drug use, and portraits of women executed in Asian countries for drug offenses.

A portrait of Zahra Bahraini, a mother of two executed for drug trafficking in Iran

As the day passed an artist built a mural with photographs and post-it notes that included the names of drug war victims.  “If you want to create social change you need to engage all the senses,” Malinowksa said. “It’s not just about the brain, it’s about touching the heart.”


Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.