Lisa Campbell & Nazlee Maghsoudi
Today was a very eventful day for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the UN! CSSDP, along with others from the SSDP International Outreach Committee, held a side event titled “Protecting Youth from Drug Policy.” CSSDP, SSDP, and SSDP UK have all been collaborating for months in preparation for this moment, and with only standing space available, it was one of the most successful sessions yet. Although the video will be available tomorrow for all to watch, the key points from the presentation are covered in this blog post.
To begin the presentation, former SSDP International Coordinator Zara Snapp spoke poignantly about the impacts of the War on Drugs in Mexico. Zara now works with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an international network which includes former heads of state as well as international dignitaries including Kofi Annan and Richard Branson. While decriminalization of small amounts of drugs exists in the books in Mexico, in reality, corruption means that those with money stay out of jail, and marginalized people are still negatively impacted. Zara pointed out that the situation in Mexico is complicated, and it’s hard to point fingers when the whole system is corrupt.
Rafael Gonzalez and Sarah Merrigan of SSDP discussed two specific examples of how prohibitionist drug policies harm youth. Rafael focused on the dangers of synthetic cannabis and why young people are driven to new psychoactive substances in the first place. By providing the audience with both a personal anecdote and scientific data, he explained how the illicit status of cannabis and other substances pushes youth towards still legal new psychoactive substances, which can be more harmful than the original substance. This is of course a direct consequence of prohibition. Sarah’s presentation focused on the story of Shelley Goldsmith and the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, better known as the RAVE Act. Shelley’s story illustrates a few of the many dangerous consequences of ignoring the reality of youth drug use and prioritizing prevention efforts over harm reduction practices. Sarah shared the Amend the Rave Act campaign and how Shelly’s mother is taking a stand to prevent further needless deaths due to bad drug policy.
Next up, we presented on harm reduction and prevention and how their implementation in Canada is failing youth. You can click through the prezi and get a feel for our presentation below.
Currently there are two trends occurring among young people who use drugs in Canada, specifically a rise in new psychoactive substances and the perception of MDMA as an unadulterated substance. Combined, these trends increase the public health challenges for young people who use drugs. These trends are important to understanding the failings and the places for improvement in prevention and harm reduction efforts in Canada.
Regarding prevention, there is limited evidence that common prevention campaigns, like public services announcements, are effective in curbing drug use. Although the recent public service announcement created by Toronto Crime Stoppers, titled “Cookin with Molly,” is effective in addressing the troubling trend of the perception of MDMA as an unadulterated substance, the public service announcement is deeply problematic in two ways. First, it has inaccurate adulterant information. The public service announcement ends with a reference to heroin being used to adulterate MDMA. This is inaccurate based on pure rationale and evidence. In terms of rationale, adulterants are meant to mimic the effect of the original substance and are cheap substances used to increase profit margins. Considering the opposite effects of MDMA and heroin (one is a stimulant and the other is a depressant) and the high street value of heroin, the use of heroin as an adulterant is not likely to occur. In terms of evidence, since the early 2000s, ecstacydata.org has not seen any MDMA pills from Canada cut with heroin. Clearly this is a fear-based approach to prevention, rather than an honest and evidence-based campaign, which is what youth deserve. Second, the public service announcement does not provide any harm reduction information. Given that this is targeted towards people who know what “molly” is, this exclusion of harm reduction is a huge missed opportunity which costs lives. In response to these two failures, CSSDP produced a remixed video in which they dubbed the adulterants to reflect the most common ones found in MDMA, and also added a list of harm reduction resources at the end.
Regarding harm reduction, CSSDP advocates for access to drug checking, an evidence-based harm reduction intervention that screens for problematic adulterants. Instead of waiting to intervene after someone overdoses, drug checking is a prevention technology which gives youth the information they need to stay safe. There are many outcomes to drug checking, including enabling governments and public health officials to monitor drug markets and thereby issue public health warnings when necessary and create modified prevention, harm reduction, and treatment programs. Most importantly, drug checking is proven to reduce deaths associated with adulterated substances, lower rates of problematic substance use, as well as to assist in lowering short-term and long-term negative effects associated with substance use. Recently, CSSDP created a policy brief on drug checking which was presented on Parliament Hill at the Fed Up Rally last fall. Drug checking is a direct response to the trends of new psychoactive substances emergence and proliferation and the perception of MDMA as unadulterated, as drug checking tells young people who use drugs exactly what is in their substances so they can assess risk accurately.
We ended our presentation at the side event by emphasizing that the health of young people who use drugs is just as important as those who don’t. The ineffective implementation of harm reduction and prevention costs lives. We have lost many young people in Canada as a result of inadequate harm reduction services and poorly designed prevention campaigns, and more pointedly, as a result of prohibition. If we can’t begin talking about the latter, we need to at least begin being more pragmatic in the way we implement harm reduction and prevention.
Ayesha Mian (SSDP UK President) and Judy Chang (SSDP International Officer) also focused on both prevention and harm reduction as a lens through which to analyze how drug policies affect youth across seven diverse European countries. SSDP UK focuses on the barriers of access to harm reduction for youth, which include age restrictions and parental consent. These policies are only applicable to some countries in Europe, and yet still effectively mean that thousands of youth do not have access to essential and life saving services. Furthermore, other barriers include the lack of youth targeted and youth specific services. Harm reduction services need to be designed and set within environments that are familiar, welcoming, and engaging for youth. The retreat of multilateral donors, such as The Global Fund, from countries including Romania and Montenegro are of particular concern in the provision of harm reduction services overall, and impact the ability to design, implement, and scale up youth focused programs. Through the lens of the pillar of prevention, Ayesha discussed UK government prevention campaigns such as the Talk to Frank service. It is ineffective in youth relevant messaging, does not have credibility, and does not address youth at risk.
To finish off the side event, Betty Aldworth, ED of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, presented a list of recommendations created by SSDP, CSSDP, and SSDP UK on how to improve harm reduction and prevention efforts.
- Acknowledge that young people do use drugs, both licit and illicit, regardless of drug policies and prevention campaigns
- Design fact-based, rather than fear-based, prevention campaigns which are participatory and inclusive of youth voices from the research through implementation stages
- Include harm reduction information in prevention campaigns targeted towards young people in order to prevent harms for those few who will use drugs regardless of effective prevention
- Ensure funding for harm reduction services in general, and in particular those with focus on young populations, which are tailored to the unique harm reduction and prevention needs of young people
- Lift legal barriers to harm reduction services and parental consent restrictions for underage injecting drug users
In addition to holding a side event, CSSDP joined activists this morning at the International Network for People who Use Drugs (INPUD) vigil for mercy for drug offenders on death row in Indonesia organized by Judy Chang. The event was powerful as protesters covered their eyes and stood in silence as international delegates streamed into the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The vigil was an act of solidarity with people who use drugs in Indonesia. According to the press release, “On the 18th of January 2015, six people were killed by firing squad in Indonesia, including citizens from the Netherlands, Brazil, Nigeria and Vietnam. There are currently more than 60 people remaining on death row in Indonesia, with President Joko Widodo refusing to grant clemency for all drug offenders. He vows to continue what he refers to as ‘shock therapy’ for people who deal, traffic and use drugs. This is highly alarming as drug traffickers on death row often represent the lowest rung of the drug trade, and act out of desperation and often coercion.” Later on that morning CSSDP attended the INCB dialogue and the new President Dr. Lochan Naidoo from South Africa spoke out against the death penalty, echoing the sentiments of this morning’s protest. If only those words would turn into action.