The theme of World Drug Day 2023 is “People first: stop stigma and discrimination, strengthen prevention.” To commemorate the day, UNODC is highlighting its work on drug prevention and treatment around the world.
Tijuana, Mexico, 15 June 2023 – “I had to become an addict to realize that we are all human.”
These heartfelt words come from Brenda Torres*, a nurse working with the civil association Prevencasa in Tijuana and a former user of drugs: “Sometimes, consumption is not a choice,” she continued. “I talk about my experience very often because I used to have lots of prejudices towards people who use drugs – until I ended up a consumer myself.”
Brenda, like many others, faced years of struggle until she hit rock bottom: "I ended up at the general hospital with an overdose, and a doctor told me, 'Well, stop using, ma'am.'
“He embarrassed me in front of everyone. That day, I decided to become a nurse and not be part of the discriminatory system for people who use drugs."
Cases like Brenda's are not unusual in Tijuana, a city adjacent to the United States-Mexico border. The drug crisis engulfing the city has had a profound social impact on local communities.
The high availability of stimulant drugs and the rise in methamphetamine production have led to soaring rates of consumption, particularly among young people. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2022, amphetamines were the most commonly detected drugs in substance-related deaths in Mexico. The number of people seeking treatment for Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), primarily methamphetamine, has also increased by 218%.
Individuals face numerous obstacles on their path to recovery, from the challenges of rehabilitation itself to the stigmas they carry. In Tijuana, people with substance use disorders are often associated with criminal activity and frequently face police persecution.
As Brenda explains, "People don't just fight against addiction, they fight against society. Even working as a nurse, I am still stigmatized."
To address these issues and promote effective, evidence-based treatment services with a focus on public health, UNODC in Mexico is implementing the Policymakersproject. Through this initiative, UNODC trains and raises awareness among national institutions to adopt a health-oriented approach and promotes international standards for substance use treatment.
The project's implementation on the Mexican border has helped reduce barriers to care and treatment. Preliminary results have been largely positive, with improved services in health facilities that have embraced a more humane and holistic approach.
Elena*1, a young patient who has been admitted several times due to problematic methamphetamine use, shares the transformative experience of her stay at the Juvenile Integration Center in Tijuana: "Four years ago, I started using crystal meth, and it almost ruined my life. When I reached out for help, my family supported me in entering the Juvenile Integration Center.
“From the moment I walked through that door, I felt like I belonged. They gave me the confidence to be free. This is my journey, and I will come out of here okay."
In the past, Elena had been confined to centers where she faced psychological abuse and offensive name-calling.
"The first person who called me a drug addict was my stepfather,” she recalls. “Now, talking to the psychologist at the clinic, I realized how much it hurts to be labeled like that. We are sick, and people should consider that before they offend us.”
The change in Elena's treatment has restored her self-respect and rekindled her desire to recover: "I have so much to fight for, first for myself and then for my son and my mother. I want to see them as happy as I am here. I also want to be happy out there with them."
In the fight against drugs, it is crucial to prioritize evidence-based treatments and prevention initiatives that address the root causes of substance abuse. Equally important, however, is ensuring that those already affected by addiction receive support without discrimination.
By embracing a health-oriented approach and breaking free from the shackles of stigma, UNODC helps empower those in need and foster a society that supports individuals on their path to recovery.
*Name changed to protect privacy