Marsha B’s Speech to the UNGASS 1998

We need to bring repressive drug policies to an end and to promote approaches grounded in human rights

19 years ago during the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (1998), a group of European advocates including Transnational Institute, The Transnational Radical Party, The John Mordaunt Trust, CAFOD, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) and others decided to take their concerns directly to the UN, in an attempt to bring a drug policy reform message to the United Nations Drug Control Program, as it was then called.

This initiative resulted in a historic speech by Marsha B., an AIDS activist from Vermont, who not only spoke about her situation but also delivered a strong message promoting human rights and advocating the end of repressive drug policies. This message was delivered almost 20 years ago but it still resonates today in the light of the American opioid crisis.  

Protest against the  deadly repressive drug policy by president Duterte Duterte in Philippines – Photo: Vocal-NY, via Flickr Licence: CC BY 2.0

Posted originally by Users Voice on August 14th, 2014

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen and thank you for allowing me to address you here today. My name is Marsha and I am a recovering addict living with HIV disease. I am a 43 year old mother of four children, two of whom are still in foster care, in the State of Vermont. I am in process of getting my children back by September. I have been drug free since 1991, [seven years] and I bring my experiences to all the activism I am involved in.

These are the things I want to say to you today:

First of all, if we really care about the pain, suffering and isolation of addicted drug users, we must be willing to listen to what they say they need: it is a fact that some of the most useful strategies used to reduce or try and eliminate the death, disease and crime associated with this level of drug use were designed by drugs users themselves.

But user-participation is not possible while we are prosecuted for being users. I decided to come here today to tell you how the “War on Drugs” directly affects my life and the lives of countless others in the hope that we might all be willing to reconsider the repressive drug policy paradigm, which has been the norm for decades all over the world.


First of all, a basic human right is infringed, as we are persecuted for using certain arbitrarily-decreed illegal drugs. As a result of this persecution, criminalization and isolation, it is very difficult to prioritize our health and other important matters of our lives. Even if this were not the case, policies all over the world have been so focused on getting us off drugs that some greater priorities have been overlooked. The most obvious of these is the primary prevention of Blood Borne Diseases (BBDs): needle exchange research from all over the world has proved the efficacy of the programs to reduce the spread of these infectious diseases, but for example, the U.S federal government has systematically refused for over a decade to support the establishment of these programs on the grounds that they would encourage people to use drugs. However, the result of this has been the rapid spread of HIV, Hepatitis, and other diseases, which have killed thousands of drug injectors and their children, and has placed enormous financial burdens on our public health and social services. For anybody who may be wondering, there is absolutely no evidence that the existence of needle-exchange programs have increased the number of injection drug users in any given community.


it is very important to remember that the vast majority of people do not become drug-dependent. It is especially important to remember this when the fear of our loved ones using drugs destructively overwhelms us. In fact, millions of people regularly use drugs and are leading normal, healthy law-abiding lives. We therefore wonder why they are punished by the law…


Another big problem of this “war” is the fact that black market supplies of drugs are very expensive and therefore some drug-dependents have resorted to all manner of opportunistic crime to fund their drug addictions. This is not because we are evil or sociopathic, as many appear to assume. No! It is because the criminalization that comes to bear on our lives pushes us into the periphery of society where crime is a constant, and where there may be no other alternative. Besides, known drug users are hardly likely to get jobs easily unless they are privileged in some other social or economic way. Ergo, our involvement in petty crime to fund the monster-addiction inside.


So as an ex-user myself living with AIDS, I would appeal to you to reconsider your current drug policies. Is Universal needle-exchange really a lot to ask for, given the fact that we would be preventing so much decimating illness amongst us, and also not burdening our societies with enormous public health bills? Is it really so much to ask?

Before I end, I want to say this. We are not asking you to condone drug use. We are simply saying that current policies are not working for the good of ALL humanity and therefore we would ask you to be open to a more thorough debate on the subject matter. Is it really OK in your heart if we sacrifice the lives of millions of people at the altar of economic and military interests?

I would like to thank my colleagues Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt and Martin Barriuso “European advocates” for helping with the preparation of this speech

Thank you for listening

Marsha B (RIP)