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Drug policy museum

This museum is fighting back against the war on drugs

Drug baggies from south east London, a two-ton mosaic truck and stark prison art paints a picture of the pain and human cost of a hard-line approach

The War on Drugs – that vague term that’s nowhere near ominous or expansive enough for the thousands of lives it has taken, incarcerated and compromised over the last half century – has catastrophically failed.

Almost one in three overdoses across Europe were in the UK. According to the Office of National Statistics, 3,744 people were fatally poisoned by legal and illegal drugs in England and Wales last year. Drug-related deaths have risen by 67 per cent, with heroin-related deaths by 107 per cent from 2012 and 2015.

And the government’s ruthless rage is a racist one: black people are more likely to receive a harsher police response for possession of cannabis – five times more likely to be charged than white people. That’s in a very similar vein to what goes on in the U.S, with the highest prison population in the world – 48.6 per cent in on drug-related offenses – and a large number are black people. The U.S is suffering an opioid epidemic. 100 people die every day from drug overdoses, a number that’s tripled in the last 20 years.

The Museum of Drug Policy, a pop-up exhibition by Release, a UK-based organisation that provides expertise on drugs and drugs law, has just debuted in London: a space that’s using art to demonstrate how drug policies impact and shape communities across the globe. The exhibit jumps from continent to continent, picking out eras and regimes that showcase some of the major moves in the human cost of the War on Drugs.

Waiting Girls by Sadegh Souri is one of these: the photo series documents young female Iranian prisoners, many in on drug charges, who must wait to turn 18 to be executed. It’s stark and disturbing. One of the young women pictured is 16-year-old Sowgand, who was arrested and charged for opium and cocaine of her father’s that was found in her home during a raid - she will spent the next two years waiting, in squalid conditions, for death.

Other pieces on display belong to Jesse Krimes, an artist who was imprisoned for 70 months  in 2009 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Over his time in prison, the Philadelphia native secretly worked on a mural made with 39 bedsheets, hair gel, plastic spoons and pages from the New York Times. His girlfriend helped smuggle out the pieces. When released, he pieced together the 30-foot high installation. Pieces of it are on display at the pop-up museum, though Krimes was denied a visa for a UK visit. This unfortunate event casts a light on the failure of the system: Krimes has served time for his non-violent offence and continued his work to become a successful artist, but he is still treated with contempt.

A piece with a huge, powerful presence in the exhibit, which also highlights another aspect of human suffering under the current system, is Carrie Richardt’s “Tiki Love Truck”: a two ton mosaic truck that memorialises the 43 disappeared students in Iguala, a horrifying tragedy at the heart of the Mexican drug war. And though not physically present, an image of Daniel Goldstein’s “Medicine Man” is rattling: after testing positive for HIV, he used his growing number of syringes and bottles to create the haunting figure.

It’s staggeringly expansive: jumping from a Nixon-era living room to the science behind an opioid overdose, drug baggies from London and stark portraiture of people suffering crack addiction evicted from favelas to make way for redevelopments.

“Together, these artists provide a powerful, emotional experience that illustrates the harms caused by drug prohibition, and advocates for approaches rooted in dignity, health, and human rights,” said Kasia Malinowska, director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. “These artistic expressions remind us that people affected by drug policies are our friends, sisters, colleagues and that they exist as members of families and communities.

“This is a particularly poignant time in the UK to be showcasing the impact of current drug policies,” says Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of Release, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. “Drug-related deaths in this country have reached the highest rate on record, and thousands of people who use drugs have been criminalised instead of getting the help they need. The museum is an excellent opportunity to elevate the drug policy debate, using art to highlight the relationship between drug policy and issues of social control, especially in relation to class and race, in ways our government refuses to address.”

The Museum of Drug Policy is open for free to the public from November 3 - November 5 at the Ugly Duck, 47-49 Tanner Street London. Find out more information here