With inspiration drawn from the reform conference sessions, it was all the more interesting to engage in the Model UNGASS (MUNGASS) sessions hosted by SSDP in collaboration with CSSDP and SSDP UK. The UNGASS (Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly) is a gathering of UN member states to discuss and propose resolutions for international issues. In April 2016, the UNGASS will focus on international solutions to the world drug problem.
I found out that I would be attending Reform only a week prior, so unfortunately all Canadian council seats were taken. Noticing a surprising lack of American representation for an event being hosted in that country, I chose to represent the USA on the Drugs and Health committee. It was interesting to more thoroughly research the drug policy of a different country, especially so as the United States is the infamous progenitor of the war on drugs. I was surprised and even impressed at the stance on drug policy that has been taken on by the Federal Government. The webpage for the White House itself is filled with such statements as “a war on drugs approach is counterproductive” and “we have learned that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.” This is a good thing to have learned given the disproportionate prison population convicted on drug charges (around 50% of inmates). While it was reassuring to find that prevention-based strategies are being focused on, and that law enforcement will focus their efforts on penalizing sellers rather than users in the future, there is certainly room for improvement in the USA’s overall approach to drug policy.
There seems to be lingering stigma about the nature of drug use as inherently dangerous or immoral. This is evident in the view held by the US government that drug use is a progressive disease of the brain that leaves the individual a victim to their biology. While this may be the reality for many, it seems too quick to wrest away the autonomy of people who use drugs. To quote Dancesafe’s Mitchell Gomez from the Novel Psychoactive Substances session, “even if you agree with stopping drug use, it can’t be done”. Drug use can be healing. It can be therapeutic. It can be spiritual. See psychedelic therapy or the spiritual use of ayahuasca and peyote, for example. Undeniably some drugs can also be a destructive force in the lives of many. However, there is nothing about the set of substances referred to as ‘drugs’ that makes any of these qualities necessarily the case for all users, and the majority of people who try drugs never become addicted.
My Canadian compatriots, Heather and Alex, represented our country well during MUNGASS. Due to limited time, it was impossible to pass all proposed resolutions and quite easy to see how such sessions could last the better part of a day. If attitudes from all country representatives are indicative of international attitudes, I generally have high hopes for the upcoming UNGASS in April. Of course, the fact that the various SSDP groups are generally progressive likely has an influence on the impression I received, but with recent trends in North and South America I feel inclined to hold to that hope.
The other sessions I attended centred around the integration of psychedelics into our culture and different models by which we could do that. Should we restrict them to a medical model or sell them freely? Should people be issued licenses for responsible personal use after the age of majority, or should we incorporate them into rites of passage in the way that many indigenous cultures around the world use them? As my interest in drug policy comes from the therapeutic potential of psychedelic compounds and the implications they have for neuroscience and psychology in general, gaining more perspectives on how to sensibly incorporate them into our culture was immensely useful.
The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), perhaps the only nonprofit focusing exclusively on the legalization of psychedelic therapy, seems well on their way to making the medical model happen and are implementing projects to train psychotherapists and open specific clinics where one can undergo therapeutic psychedelic sessions. As usual, the MAPS table had a lot of really great literature on subjects of the sort and I couldn’t pass up a copy of “The Psychedelic Future of the Mind” by Thomas Roberts.
While there were events during and after every day of the conference (including a Canadian party on Friday!) Saturday night was definitely the highlight of the weekend. The conference goers gathered on the national mall, 200 feet or so from the base of the Washington Monument for a party that lasted until sunrise. The event was called Catharsis. The experience certainly fitted such a name. A temple of silver flames was constructed in the centre of the crowd. A group of fire dancers circled the temple to the rhythm of hand drums. The Temple was lit with great enthusiasm, burning several feet above our heads. It burned for close to an hour as people around it expressed their enthusiasm for the successes of the drug policy movement and a call for the war on drugs to finally come to an end. I embraced the ritual and found myself alive with the collective energy of all those present.
I still feel that energy within me as I write this a week later. I look forward to the reform conference two years from now in Atlanta and hope that there will be better news to come, especially from us here in Canada! Our nation was welcomed and applauded for the success of the Liberal party victory in our recent election, but we still have to see if the promise for cannabis regulation is met. If so, hopefully we can use that momentum to push for more wide-scale reform and achieve goals similar to those of the Drug Policy Alliance and MAPS.