Alex Betsos

Endings are always hard, if not harder than beginnings. Despite the hours of work that we put into the conference, seeing it all end was equally sad. Although Saturday was an amazing day, and I was haggard from the sheer amount of conversations that had occurred, Sunday had no intention of slowing down as some of the most fascinating talks were saved for last. Few of us realized the tension and bursting energy that Sunday would bring.

Our opening panel consisting of Donna May, founder of Jac’s Voice, Brun Gonzalez from Espolea, and Brian O’Dea, author of “High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler,” found passion in a tired morning crowd. May began by bringing us to tears, the story of her daughter so personal and honest that it left me speechless. She told us the story of how she turned away her daughter Jac when she needed her most, namely when she was going through heroin addiction. May said that her daughter had been struggling with underlying mental health issues that led to her opiate use and sex work. If as May said, her daughter Jac, who had passed away years ago, “still had a voice” then her mother was channelling that voice, and giving it the space it so deserved. Gonzalez’s talk was less personal, however, no less poignant. Focusing on the work he has done with Espolea, Gonzalez covered major drug trends in Mexico and discussed how harm reduction supplies are most difficult to find in Mexico in the places where people need them most. O’Dea’s talk was perhaps the most powerful talk of the conference. He argued that logic and rationality should prevail in the conversation on drugs. He discussed his own life with substances, yet the moments that were most chilling were the ones that were the most personal. O’Dea recalled for us the story of him having a heart attack in a closet in his house in his late 30s. We found irony that conservatives were getting into the drug business, and that dealers stayed locked in jail. The contradiction read loud and clear: be rich, white, and play by our rules, and you too could own a million dollar cannabis club.

If Marc Emery came off as an agitator before, his keynote was stunning, inspiring, and for some enraging all at the same time. Before his keynote, I had mixed feelings about Emery, and even as I write this, those feelings arise again. Yet, Emery’s story of resistance was one of someone who had really pushed forward conversations about the ways our government can control who we are, and our tastes, and that sometimes you need to push back against the system, kicking and screaming your way to jail if you have to. Emery began his days of civil disobedience after reading Libertarian writer Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and protested against the ban of a record by the name of As Nasty As They Wanna Be. He would later carry books on cannabis in the bookstore he owned, cementing himself within cannabis resistance and culture. Having been to prison 28 times for civil disobedience, Emery’s voice to “plant the seeds of freedom, overgrow the government” reminded me of another famous man by the name of Timothy Leary, who had asked people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and who had also been greeted by the cold feeling of iron bars. Emery gave away most of the money he made from his seed selling to fighting various causes, including helping people he had met when he was extradited to the United States and spent three years in jail there. While at times his bravado made him seem self-serving, his actions seemed to speak the inverse.

Emery fanned the flames of some of those in the crowd when he encouraged people to engage in civil disobedience and risk jail, pointing out that when it comes to the consequences of the law, sometimes ignorance was bliss. Commenters from the audience called Emery out on his white privilege. Not everyone had the privilege to protest, some were people of colour and faced discrimination, others could not protest for fear of being deported; they felt that Emery had poorly understood his privilege as a white male. When he pointed out that marginalized groups had actively practiced civil disobedience during the civil rights era, he was met with cries that cannabis legalization and civil rights were not the same, even though Gonzalez’s speech prior had remarked on the stunning death toll prohibitionist drug polices had placed on Mexican citizens, and previous panels had focused on the continued usage of the death penalty for drug users in certain countries. As the conversation slowly fell apart, Jodie Emery came up to speak and to defend Emery. She pointed out the tireless sacrifices that Emery had made, and how he had worked with people of multiple races and classes both in helping to treat problematic substance use, and helping people out of jail. Yet the crowd had a point, Emery was definitely privileged in a lot of ways, and even if he had been arrested many times, many activists know that people of colour tend to be treated far worse by police both at their arrest and when in prison. As many pointed out at the conference, people of colour are overrepresented in both the US and Canadian prison systems. Emery’s last words were so confounding that for better or worse, I will never forget. Standing at the microphone, Emery pauses, and says “I may have a lot of privilege, but it sure has worked out well for you.” Although Emery has significantly progressed cannabis culture in Canada, his insensitivity to the different circumstances faced by marginalized groups was unfortunate.

After Emery’s keynote, I headed over to the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) panel which featured Andrew Wilson and Marc Allen, both from TRIP!, Gonzalez, and Nazlee Maghsoudi, Chair of the Board of Directors for CSSDP. As a bit of a drug nerd, I was really excited to see what new substances were appearing across Canada. As the panelists would point out, there have been over 348 NPS identified as of December 2013 alone! With my work in Karmik, and my exploration of online use habits, we often find that the sheer proportion of research chemicals on the market is absurdly impossible to keep track of. How do you create literature for 6-APB or 4-FA when they are just as likely to disappear off the market in the next year or two? Public health and harm reduction are underfunded; sacrifices need to be made. In the opening portion of the panel, Wilson discussed the history of research chemicals. What are research chemicals, and why is that their name? Marketing of course! Wilson’s talk did not just cover the basic groundwork of research chemicals; it also went into detail about some substances we are seeing on the market. Importantly, it noted that research chemicals are not new. Allen’s discussion focused primarily around on what he was seeing with TRIP! Maghsoudi brought a different perspective to the panel by looking at the opportunities that the emergence and proliferation of NPS present for drug policy reformers pushing for change. First, the international attention on NPS allows drug policy reformers to consistently point out that the prohibition of traditionally used illicit substance has led to the creation of these possibly more harmful drugs. Second, since NPS is perceived as an entirely new class of drugs, it presents policymakers the opportunity to take an approach different than prohibition without having to admit that prohibition has been an abysmal failure. They can regulate NPS and keep other drugs illegal, much like legislation in New Zealand has tried to do. Third, NPS presents drug policy reformers with the opportunity to push for the addition or scaling up of drug checking services to increase levels of information for people who use drugs, public health officials, and governments. Maghsoudi stressed that NPS is an opportunity we in the drug policy reform community must seize.

The final panel I attended was on drug checking, which was a fun panel to moderate. Sadly, the panel was closed to media, as it contained sensitive materials, and I want to honour those who spoke by painting in broad strokes. The panelists included: Lori Kufner from TRIP!, Gonzalez, Evan Dorion, and Julie-Soleil Meeson from GRIP. Drug checking was something that all panelists felt was an important measure because of the increase of festival deaths over the last few years, and because it helps people who use drugs make more informed choices about their use. We discussed the need for more information for health providers from drug checking and different methods for seeing what exactly is in the pill of your average clubber. Methods include lab based mass spectrometers, more portable options, chromatography at festivals, and reagent testing methods. Each have their advantages in terms of price, availability, and ease of set up. For example, the accuracy with which one needed to set up a chromatographic drug checking system was a difficult one to constantly insure. One required first a pure sample of the substance, then to compare that to other substances. Any change in temperature, humidity or elevation would change the results, meaning that one required large samples of pure testable substances, in order to constantly affirm festival results. Ultimately, the panel’s consensus was clear: Canada needs better access to drug checking, and while these other methods would be supplementary, they could not compete with the work going on in Western Europe.

The conference ended with an interactive session led by Donald MacPherson of Canadian Drug Policy Coalition during which conference attendees shared their ideas for the future of drug policy in Canada. Watch our website for the posting of all submitted ideas, and to vote for the top three you feel must be prioritized!

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