“At UNGASS [United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs] 2016, Canada is concerned about calls for decriminalization and legalization. Believe this underplays the power of organized crime and the danger they pose to communities.”
If this is Canada’s stance at the UNGASS, the biggest meeting the UN has had about drugs since 1998, we can forget about regaining our reputation as a global leader in drug policy. Canadians have an obligation to demand that our government take a serious look at the evidence, rather than make statements based on little more than political rhetoric.
Removing criminal penalties for the personal use of any drug should no longer be a controversial topic. Evidence has increasingly told us that decriminalization leads to reductions in the harms caused by drugs. The benefits experienced in Portugal, such as the significant reduction in the number of people with drug-related diseases, is perhaps the most cited example. In reality, decriminalization is a policy that has been increasingly adopted by countries that prioritize public health. The World Health Organization has even recommended decriminalization, indicating that decriminalization is a best practice in drug policy.
It isn’t just the caution against decriminalization and legalization in Canada’s statement that is troubling. Although the statement is not explicit, the Canadian government seems to be implying that the power of organized crime would not be weakened by a reform in drug policies. Yet, legalization would eliminate a major revenue source for organized criminals. Even if their revenue sources are highly diversified and the impact on organized crime is minimal, taking control from the illegal market and putting it in the hands of government can improve the outcome that we must be most concerned with: the health and safety of our communities.
On Friday March 20th CSSDP traveled all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to witness the very first medical marijuana case Rv.Smith. Otherwise known as the Extract Trial, Owen Smith has been going through the courts since he got caught in 2009 making cookies for the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club. In 2011 his case made it to the B.C. Supreme Court which deemed the restriction to cannabis extracts unconstitutional, effectively making extracts legal in British Columbia. Appealed by the federal government, the case was now left to the Supreme Court of Canada to hopefully make a similar decision. After coming back from the UN and seeing how painfully slow policy change can be, it was incredibly refreshing to see how much change we’ve accomplished through the courts, even under the Conservative government in Canada. You could feel the excitement walking up to the Supreme Court, as Canada’s cannabis legends puffed and passed on the steps recording interviews and celebrating how far we’ve come.
It was 15 years ago in 2000 when an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in R. v. Parker determined that the prohibition of cannabis was unconstitutional as it did not contain an exemption for medical use. In 2001 the Canadian Medical Marihuana Access Regulations were initiated, allowing Canadians to access cannabis to treat a variety of conditions. These regulations had three important components: they allowed Canadians to grow for themselves, designate a grower, or purchase through the government monopoly Prairie Plant Systems. Through a series of subsequent court challenges, it was clear the program was not serving the needs of patients, leaving the government to create a new access program. The new program, introduced in June 2013, took on a licensed ‘free market’ model allowing companies to apply to be Health Canada Licensed Producers. Although patients were part of Health Canada’s consultation, many felt patient voices were ignored by privatizing this new industry and removing patients rights to grow. This new program is being challenged by the Allard case, alongside the MMAR Coalition, who was successful at having an injunction granted, protecting patients and designated growers right to produce until the case is settled in the courts. Injunctions are instrumental in ensuring the rights of Canadians are not violated in the interm.
With all these changes in medical cannabis going through the courts, it felt important to be there to show solidarity with Owen Smith and his team. We also wanted to be there to share that experience and information with our members and the general public. Often, it is difficult to get clear information about these cases in the news, and the broken telephone of the mainstream media send out the wrong message to youth. So many young people reach out to us every day to ask if cannabis is legal in Canada! Unfortunately that is not the case (yet), or else we wouldn’t be continuously going to court to fight for our rights. As youth, it’s important for us to understand how far we have come and how much has been sacrificed to get where we are today. Cannabis Culture has achieved so much in Canada, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop fighting! CSSDP drove all the way to Ottawa to bear witness to this legendary court case which could change the face of drug policy in Canada.
At the Supreme Court we were all at the edge of our seats hearing the arguments from the Crown and defence. The Crown argued that these were untested products, and that there was already pharmaceutical access to cannabinoid extracts (synthetic and naturally derived) apart from the MMPR, including Cesamet (nabilone), Marinol (dronabinol) and Sativex. It was interesting that the Crown reinforced that there was no evidence to show that extracts were effective treatment, but tried to dismiss them by saying there was existing access. While the Crown attorney was correct in that there needs to be more investment in to cannabinoid research, the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is invested shows the true potential of cannabis extracts and the need to expand research. Throughout his arguments riddled with desperation, the Supreme Court judges were particularly snippy and dismissive towards the Crown attorney.
Smith’s lawyer Kirk Tousaw took a bold move and proposed removing cannabis extracts entirely from the CDSA Schedule II, and regulate them in the same way as natural health products in Canada. While removing cannabis from the CDSA would be a bold move, most natural health products do not have psychoactive properties. The Supreme Court judges seemed surprised by the proposed solution, as it was not brought up in pre-trial and would set a legal precedent. There is a huge body of evidence that shows that cannabis, like other psychoactive substances such as alcohol, could benefit greatly from a strict regulatory framework in order to improve public health. What is highly evident from comparing both arguments is that regulation cannot result in the restriction of access for patients. If regulation means access only through a limited amount of FDA approved pharmaceutical products, patients end up loosing the whole benefits of the diverse endocannabinoids. As such, regulation of cannabis as a natural health product decriminalizes both patients and health providers through ensuring access.
If the Supreme Court were to agree to remove cannabis from the CDSA this would be a radical first towards legalization from both medical and recreational use. If cannabis was 100% decriminalized and regulated federally as a natural product, this would pressure government to create provincial legalization to regulate it for adult use. The decision is certainly months away, so whether it will come before or after the election will certainly be controversial. In Canada, much of the drug policy gains are captured through the court system, so we will be on the edge of our seats until then! For more information on the trial, check out board member Jenna Valleriani’s coverage on the Lift Cannabis blog or watch the full trial online.
On Monday, Bill C-2 or the ‘Respect for Communities Act’ is coming before the House of Commons for a vote. Bill C-2 will set up excessive and unattainable barriers for community and health agencies that are hoping to open supervised consumption services for people who use drugs. Supervised consumption services have proven to increase access to essential services such as health, treatment, and social services for marginalized groups and reduce the harm on local communities. We believe safer communities go hand in hand with easier access to health services, rather than furthering the distance between vulnerable populations and these critical services! Put health, harm reduction and the well-being of our communities first: take action against Bill C-2.
1. Contact the federal party leaders, Minister of Health and Health Critics
Tweet, email, or call your MP to let them know why they should oppose Bill C-2 (find some suggested tweets below). You can also direct your MP to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s (@aidslaw) critical analysis of the bill, An Injection of Reason: http://bit.ly/injectionofreason.
Today’s morning plenary session was one that many NGOs had been eagerly (and perhaps anxiously) awaiting. Now that the Special Segment of the UNGASS has ended, the first order of business at the 58th Commission on Narcotic Drugs was voting on the scheduling of several substances, including ketamine. As we outlined in Tuesday’s blog post, the possibility of scheduling ketamine has been an important issue, as it would undermine global health, international law, and the role of science in the international drug control regime. CND member states were set to vote on China’s request to put ketamine in Schedule IV this morning. Instead, at China’s request, the CND voted unanimously to postpone the decision to a future date when “more information could be provided.” Ketamine was not scheduled today, but the issue has not been put to rest.
The sentiment of NGOs in response to the CND decision on ketamine was a mix between relief and frustration. At least we were not taking a step back. Ketamine will be easily available for medical use in developing countries for the time being. Yet, we have certainly not taken a step forward and the justification for doing so is inaccurate. The research is already in. Like it didn’t for the last three critical reviews, the recommendation of the WHO to not schedule ketamine will not change. Ketamine should not be scheduled, and putting it off for another year will not alter what should be done on the basis of evidence. NGOs accepted this mediocre outcome today and noted that is was another example of a “step to the side” at the CND.
Many youth harm reduction services saw a spike in NPS in 2010, after the initial rise in innovation. While over the years 2010-2012 there were 85 new substances, another boost was experienced in 2013 when 97 new substances were identified. Between 2013 and 2014 the number of NPS reported increased cumulatively from 348 to over 540. There is no doubt that the rate of new drugs being produced is now happening faster than governments can schedule them. There are real health concerns associated with NPS, including high potency, mislabeling, and adulteration. It is a challenge for health services to keep up with the trends, as drug epidemiology is now globalized with very poor data on what substances are prevalent in which regions. While one NPS might be popular one month, a new one pops up by the time harm reduction resources are created. There is a lack of information and training available for service providers, including EMS, hospitals, physicians, and social workers. There is no doubt that this diversity of substances creates barriers for enforcement, harm reduction, prevention, and treatment, but what is the solution?
Like last year, CSSDP returned to ChEckiT to get an update on their programs. We began the presentation by looking at epidemiological data collected through ChEckiT’s drug checking service, including MDMA and speed samples. Currently Europe is experiencing a wave of very potent pure MDMA, but speed is more likely to be adulterated. NPS is still prevalent, with spikes detected in samples in 2010 and now again in 2013, which correlate with the UNODC’s drug monitoring data. By collecting drug monitoring data from the front lines, ChEckiT provides harm reduction information directly to young people who use drugs, and shares the data with public health units.
On the tour SSDP, SSDP UK and CSSDP all swapped stories about drug trends in our communities, realizing that similar trends occurred at the same time. Pure MDMA powder became popular in 2006, when the international scheduling of safrole oil (a precursor used in MDMA) meant a massive blow out sale for manufacturers, with MDMA prices dropping and purity increasing. When the markets reached equilibrium and quality resumed to regular levels, the perception of powdered MDMA as a pure substance remained (the cause of the current misperception). We also saw an explosion of NPS in our respective communities in 2010. This was correlated with a rise in the number of online vendors, such as Silk Road. Young people around the world were now able to easily purchase NPS at the click of a mouse. Any effort to cut off the dark net has sprung into a hydra effect, with spin off sites created to fill any unmet market demand.
In Canada and globally, a variety of NPS sites exist where you can purchase unscheduled substances ranging from research chemicals to generic pharmaceuticals. There is no doubt that the number of fentanyl overdoses in Canada is related to the availability of cheap generic synthetic super opiates available online. Just a simple google search of “fentanyl buy” generates over 48,000 results. Thus, the ability of the international drug control system to regulate substances is failing miserably. This leads us to question the likely effectiveness of the scheduling efforts this morning to eliminate production, trafficking, and consumption. It’s time to take a public health approach to drug policy reform. ChEckiT is just one component.
The need to take a “public health approach to drug policy” is language we have heard over and over at this year’s CND. We can’t help but wonder, however, what exactly does this mean? As the two side events we cover in tonight’s blog post demonstrate, addressing drug use from a public health perspective can look very different depending on who you ask.
CSSDP had the opportunity to hear experts share their understanding of a public health approach to drug policy today at a side event organized by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Milton Romani, National Drug Coordinator of the Government of Uruguay, emphasized that a public health approach to drug policy prioritizes respect for human rights above all other objectives, including the goal of combating illicit drug production, trafficking, and consumption. A human rights framework is at the centre of their government’s decision to regulate the recreational marijuana market. According to Mr. Romani, “our current framework has done nothing to ensure human rights.” In addition to respect of human rights, Richard Elliot from Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, added that a true public health approach to drug policy must include three components: harm reduction, decriminalization, and regulation. The extent to which the current international drug control regime restricts or discourages these elements of a public health approach is a matter of concern, and indicates that we need to revisit the regime.
Steve Rolles from Transform Drug Policy Foundation elaborated significantly on the notion of regulation as a public health approach to drug policy. We need to start from a place of reality when discussing a public health approach to drug policy: people use drugs, and a drug free world will never be possible. What we can do, however, is identify public health risks and seek to mitigate them. A regulated approach to illicit substances allows governments to intervene by identifying and reducing risks that are currently a significant challenge in drug production and supply, as well as consumption. Regulation allows governments to achieve better public health outcomes by controlling potency, putting health information on packaging, setting advertising restrictions, and adopting other similarly intended strategies. Importantly, and as CSSDP pointed out at the Civil Society Hearing on Monday, regulation can be much more effective than prohibition at keeping drugs out of the hands of youth. As any organization working on the ground can tell you, youth can easily access illicit substances despite their illegality. In a regulated market, age restrictions can be imposed to prevent this current challenge. Mr. Rolles stressed that regulation is achievable, as we already have an international regulatory framework for non-medical and non-scientific uses of a drug… tobacco! Mr. Rolles also noted the problematic concept of a balanced approach between public health and law enforcement that is frequently discussed at the UN. According to Mr. Rolles, “We can’t balance something that works against something that doesn’t.”
Regulation can also be a viable solution for addressing the challenges in drug producing and transit countries where the impact of harm reduction and decriminalization can be limited. Lisa Sanchez from Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia brought this important perspective to the panel, reminding us that in some countries, “drug policies kill more than drugs themselves.” Mexico is a case in point, as the level of homicides has risen threefold since the war on drugs was declared, with currently 10,000 murders per year. Prevalence of drug consumption has increased a meagre 0.2%. A public health approach needs to focus on the whole population, including those that are subject to drug market violence, which is unavoidable under prohibition.
In conclusion, the side event highlighted that a public health approach will be different in consumer, transit, and production countries, but it undoubtedly must have a respect for human rights at its core, and would incorporate harm reduction, decriminalization, and regulation. This was far from what was discussed as a “public health approach to drug policy” at the next side event we attended.
Organized by Europe Against Drugs (EURAD), Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, and the Norwegian Policy Network on Alcohol and Drugs (Actis), the second public health side event of the day took a different approach, by zeroing in on epidemiological data on drug use trends and associated harms, and also focused on recovery and the dangers of a commercial market for cannabis in the United States. To begin the panel, Fay Watson from EURAD made a strong statement supporting the movement towards a public health approach in the UNGASS process. Ms. Watson encouraged attendees to consider the social determinants of health that shape drug use, and not view addiction as a choice. Problematic substance use can emerge due to a variety of social phenomena like age, gender, genetics, wide social norms, laws, and social, economic, and environmental factors. There is no single risk factor that predicts drug use, or drug use becoming problematic, and our prevention programs need to acknowledge that.
Next up, Maria Renstrom from the World Health Organization (WHO) presented on global drug trends, but said little on the interventions needed to combat the global epidemic, thereby lacking a true explanation of what a public health approach to drug policy entails. In particular, Ms. Renstrom had some excellent slides on global prevalence of opiates, and highlighted that while over prescribing might be an issue in some regions, others experienced barriers to accessing essential medicines. While Ms. Renstrom challenged the audience, “What is required to reduce health effects of substance abuse?” she never really answered her own question. She was correct in pointing out that there are a number of poor health outcomes for key affected populations such as injection drug users, yet she did not attribute them to policy but to their own behaviours. There was no analysis of the environmental factors that lead to poor health outcomes for drug users such as criminalization, imprisonment, stigma, isolation, or poverty. In addition to no explicit mention of harm reduction services, Ms. Renstrom also failed to include the WHO’s position on decriminalization, namely that “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.” This was truly a shame given the obvious importance of decriminalization in a public health approach to drug policy.
Kevin Sabet from Smart Approaches to Drugs closed the panel with a surface level critique of what he called “commercialization.” Mr. Sabet strived to demonstrate that a regulatory approach is incompatible with a public health approach to drug policy. Yet his presentation was riddled with inconsistencies, thereby completing undermining his argument. Mr. Sabet explained that the recent reductions in tobacco use in the USA have been due to driving the tobacco industry out by imposing high restrictions, and he believes the opposite is happening in Colorado with cannabis legalization. Evidently, there is an inherent inconsistency in his argument. He is stating that the desired outcome of reduced use was achieved when tighter restrictions were imposed on industry. Regulating illicit substances does exactly that. Regulation would put restrictions on a market that currently has, in effect, no restrictions at all.
According to Mr. Sabet, Colorado is the “first implementation” of commercialization globally, and as such he was concerned about the number of people who use cannabis heavily, the increased concentration of THC in cannabis products, and impaired driving. Unfortunately, Mr. Sabet neglected to note that for many youth in North America, it is drug policy which ultimately hurts young people. While Mr. Sabet was quick to point out that in the USA incarceration is low for cannabis consumers in the general population, he neglected to mention how youth of colour are targeted by cops simply for walking down the street.
A fundamental flaw in Mr. Sabet’s argument was his assertion that the increase in the number of children who accidentally consume marijuana under legalization puts a “strain on the state as they need to have more people in poison control centers and emergency rooms.” What about the reduction in burden on the state in terms of the number of law enforcement personnel that are no longer needed to enforce cannabis prohibition? Mr. Sabet later went on to say that the annual number of children needing medical help for accidental marijuana consumption has increased from one to fourteen. Not only does this lead us to wonder what exactly Mr. Sabet’s threshold is for “strain on the state,” it also guarantees that the reduction in law enforcement has been a more significant saving.
While Mr. Sabet is very worried about young people using cannabis, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that research has shown that when teenage consumption of cannabis goes up, the more harmful trend of binge drinking goes down. Although we appreciate Mr. Sabet’s concern about the developing brains of young adults, unlike alcohol there is no risk of death through consuming cannabis. We agree with Mr. Sabet that there is data emerging about the effects of cannabis on long term memory for teens, but it’s important not to over exaggerate the risks. Most importantly, in a regulated market cannabis would be a controlled substance like alcohol and cigarettes, decreasing underage consumption, and creating new tax revenue to fund youth prevention, harm reduction, and treatment services. Cannabis has now surpassed tobacco use for youth in the US, so if we really want to decrease use we need to legalize and regulate cannabis.
Later today, we met with the Canadian delegation to discuss some of our perspectives on key issues at this year’s CND, including the engagement of civil society and other UN agencies in the process leading up to and at the UNGASS, tomorrow’s vote on scheduling ketamine, and new psychoactive substances. We are very grateful for the opportunity to meet and are also very pleased that members of the Canadian delegation attended our side event yesterday. We hope that the Canadian delegation takes to heart the concerns we expressed at both our meeting and side event, and CSSDP look forwards to continuing conversations with them on this important policy area.
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.
Only standing room at the CSSDP, SSDP, and SSDP UK side event today at #CND2015.
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 usedrugs. 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 alsoadded 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.
In addition to having detrimental impacts on global health, scheduling ketamine would also go against the opinion of the WHO. The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) has critically evaluated ketamine on three separate occasions, most recently last year after a notification was made by China to schedule ketamine. In all three cases, the ECDD did not recommend that the CND place ketamine under international control. According to the 1971 Convention, the CND can only schedule a substance if given an explicit WHO recommendation to do so.
Despite the requirement that any scheduling be recommended by the WHO, the Chinese proposal to schedule ketamine may go to a vote this Friday. This potential disregard for procedures surrounding scheduling is of great importance. Even if the vote is unsuccessful, simply having such a vote undermines the importance of science in international drug control. As was pointed out by Christopher Hallam of International Drug Policy Consortium while speaking at a side event on Monday, the principle of scientific review by the WHO needs to be defended and strengthened. Even more importantly, allowing the Chinese proposal to go to a vote sets a troubling precedent for the future, as other countries may bypass WHO recommendations and suggest substances for scheduling without any scientific or evidence-based rationale. If such a situation transpired, the entire international drug control regime system would surely become a joke.
Many civil society groups have been lobbying member states to vote against the scheduling of ketamine, and to speak out about the procedural problems and undermining of scientific evidence that such a vote would entail (see the Fact Sheet and Extended Fact Sheet). Canadian researchers have been particularly active in this effort. As we mentioned yesterday, Canada has not publicly stated its position on this issue, meaning we will have to wait and see what stance Canada takes on Friday. CSSDP hopes that Canada shows their respect for global health, international law, and science by speaking out against the vote, and in the case that it proceeds, voting against the scheduling of ketamine.
The first day of the 58th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was full of excitement as civil society and member states flew in from around the globe to talk drug policy. As it’s the second time CSSDP has attended CND, it felt kind of like a drug policy reunion! As soon as we stepped foot into the UN, the first thing we saw was a huge beautiful photo installation by the Harm Reduction Coalition. As we headed over to the civil society briefing, we learned that this was the greatest ever civil society presence at the CND!
There were so many international NGOs present that we even got seats this year at the back of the plenary room. For NGOs who have been tiptoeing through the hallways for years, this was a huge win! While looking for our seats we ran across another drug policy super star, SSDP’s Executive Director Betty Aldworth. In honour of her first time at CND, I took her on an adventure to the secret glass boxes above the plenary room, where we eagerly folded brochures about our upcoming side event, “Protecting Youth from Drug Policy Reform,” while watching opening statements from member states.
Canada also focused on the risks associated with new psychoactive substances, but was vague about addressing exactly how their government policies were reducing these risks. As many young people who use drugs know, mislabeling is common in NPS as they are marked “not for human consumption” to avoid crackdowns. While the root of NPS is evading drug control regimes, Canada cautioned against movements towards decriminalization and legalization. Just like last year, there was no mention of harm reduction, human rights, or abolishing the death penalty. Strangely enough, there was also no mention of civil society engagement. Today’s statement reinforces why Canada is no longer a leader in global drug policy, as the opinion editorial we wrote for the Globe and Mail with Canadian Drug Policy Coalition discussed. Read Canada’s statement for yourself, as reported by CSSDP Chair Nazlee Maghsoudi, to find out more about what Canada said and didn’t say. Notice that Canada also made no comment about ketamine, but we’ll tell you about that tomorrow!
This year’s CND is especially important because it includes a Special Segment on UNGASS preparations, which is essentially a planning session for the first major UN drug meeting since 1998. The hope is that the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session in April 2016 will be an opportunity for open and honest dialogue about the impacts of prohibitionist drug policies and the options for the future, and what happens at this year’s CND may have a significant impact on that objective. If you would like to learn more about the UNGASS, how civil society can be involved, and why it is so important for youth to be included in the conversation, watch the video below of a plenary panel from the 7th Annual National CSSDP Conference last weekend.
Lisa Campbell, Outreach Director at CSSDP, and I, Chair of the Board of Directors for CSSDP, will be attending the CND again this year. CSSDP will be participating in a side event presentation with members of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK (SSDP UK), titled “Protecting Youth from Drug Policy.” For those in attendance, the side event will take place on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 from 1:10 PM to 2:00 PM in Conference Room MOE100. Also with SSDP and SSDP UK, we will be launching our latest project, Drug War Stories, next week in Vienna.
Lisa and I will blog everyday on what they are witnessing and learning in Vienna by summarizing, analyzing, and reflecting on all the events we attend. We will pay special attention to any side events related to youth, as well as to the two resolutions involving youth that are being considered at the meeting. The two resolutions are titled “Supporting the availability, accessibility and diversity of evidence based treatment and care for young people affected by drug use disorders” and “Promoting interventions on protection of young people and children with particular reference to the sale of illicit drugs and new psychoactive substances over the Internet.” Both resolutions, as well as all other resolutions to be considered at the 58th Session of the CND, can be viewed here. I will also be blogging for the CND Blog to increase transparency of the international drug control regime.
Please check this blog regularly to stay up to date on what is happening in Vienna, and make sure to follow CSSDP on Facebook and Twitter for frequent updates!
For those is attendance, other side events of particular interest include:
“Youth Substance Use and Misuse: Challenges and Progress” hosted by Youth Organisations for Drug Action (YODA) and the Government of Poland on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 from 2:20 PM to 3:10 PM in Conference Room M3
“Meeting the Challenge: Implementing a Comprehensive Public Heath Approach to Illegal Drugs” hosted by Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Transform Drug Policy Foundation on Thursday, March 12, 2015 from 9:00 AM to 9:50 AM in Conference Room M6
Are you a youth or a student that has been negatively impacted by drug policy? Suffered because of misinformation spread through fear-based prevention campaigns? Unable to get the help you needed because of a shortage of youth-targeted treatment programs? Spent time in prison when you could have been in school? Lost a loved one due to preventable overdose or disease? The SSDP International Outreach Committee is currently looking for students and youth to share their stories about the harms caused by prohibitionist drug policies.
Tell us about an event or a moment in your life when drug policy failed you! Each story should be no longer than 450 words. All you will have to provide in addition to your story is your country of residence, age, gender (to be published with the story), and contact information (so we can reach you if needed). You may also provide your name/nickname and a photo to go along with your story if you would like. Street-involved youth, incarcerated youth, and any young people who feel they need support in submitting a story are encouraged to get in touch. Stories from parents or loved ones who have lost their children due to prohibitionist drug policies are also welcome.
If you would like to submit a photo along with your story, or need help submitting, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been an incredibly inspiring weekend for all of us at Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy! Thank you to everyone who made the 7th Annual National CSSDP Conference, “A Rising Revolution: Drug Policy Reform Around the Globe” a huge success. With over 250 attendees, this was the first time we have sold out the CSSDP Conference, and we look forward to booking an even bigger venue next year! Thank you to our amazing sponsors, speakers, volunteers, and attendees for making this the best conference yet. For those of you who weren’t able to attend, we have great news! Vapor Central live streamed all of our plenaries which are available online. As well, the Cannabus Tour video is also online in all of it’s glory, so check out the clips below to relive the conference, or experience it for the first time.
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!
Saturday began with passion and intensity, the same that made Friday night exciting. CSSDP opened the conference with a territory acknowledgment and opening prayer by Wanda Whitebird, Womens Outreach Worker for the Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy, who is a member of the Bear Clan, from the Mi’kMag Nation. Wanda drummed in the conference, welcoming us to the land and pointing out the importance of the conversations and movements beginning today. Wanda’s opening remarks were followed by a brilliant and heart wrenching personal story by Kali from the Eva’s Initiative Spot program. Kali brought us through his story of the impact drugs had on his personal life, and the steps he took to better it. CSSDP then brought out a memorial to all the friends, family, and loved ones that had been lost by the war on drugs. We had a minute of silence to mourn and remember those who could not be here, because their lives ended unfairly. Afterwards CSSDP introduced our timeline of drug policy, which details the historical past of drug policy, and potential future projects. The timeline laid bare, the common emotion through the room was that drug prohibition needs to end – for those we lost and will lose – and that we must be aware of the necessary steps that will bring us forward, that will create a rising revolution. A new board of directors would be elected that night, and CSSDP’s board would remember those left behind.
After the opening remarks had been made, Dr. Carl Hart began where he left off the night before; discussing the importance of a holistic and scientific approach to drug policy. While Dr. Hart argued against anecdotal evidence, he used his own personal story to back up the evidence he wanted to demonstrate. If there was one thing to take away from Dr. Hart’s speech, it was that to be an effective member of the drug policy community, or any community, we need an in-depth understanding of interpreting data, and to be critically informed about the substances we talk about. As well, Dr. Hart reinforced that the drug policy reform movement is so much more than just legalizing one drug, and that it is based in social justice and civil rights. It’s important for drug policy reform activists to make the links between racism and the drug war to be allies in this fight.
The Open Society Foundations (OSF) sponsored panel on the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) furthered the importance of practical movements towards changing international policy. The panel, moderated by Donald MacPherson of CPDC, featured Scott Bernstein of OSF, Heather Haase from the New York NGO Committee on Drugs, Ayesha Mian from SSDP UK and CSSDP’s very own Nazlee Maghsoudi. Bernstein explained the bureaucratic elements of the UN’s complicated drug policy organizations. Particularly, he called out the International Narcotic Control Board’s historic support of countries that were violating human rights by executing drug users. Haase explained her role in the NYNGOC, and how by moving the conference away from Vienna, it allowed the participation of many whose voices had been excluded from previous discussions. She even responded succinctly to a question from myself, on including Latin American and African countries participating in the discussions. The producing countries of the drug war have largely been rising against the current regime, and their voices on the world stage are needed now more than ever. Mian and Maghsoudi copresented the role of youth at the panel, and the power that organizations like CSSDP and SSDP could make, with the power of our young social base. The talk ended conservative but positive. We could change the war on drugs, but it requires caution, planning and a negotiation for a better world. No one had any allusions that UNGASS 2016 would be a major game changer.
When lunch broke out, the large group split into three different rooms, with the main room being livestreamed. I moved into the nightlife harm reduction panel, with Brun Gonzalez from Espolea Lori Kufner from TRIP Project, Julie-Soleil Meeson, of GRIP, David Stuart from GUM/HIV and ChemSex, and Munroe Craig from Karmik (a harm reduction group we co-run with another former CSSDP member). Gonzalez’s powerpoint was beautiful, displaying Mexican music festivals, and the literature created by Espolea was mind blowing! Every drug information piece was beautifully illustrated and colour coded, with a charm seen in not many places. Gonzalez focused on another method for drug testing that Espolea used which differed significantly from the other organizations. Each harm reduction organization complemented the others brilliantly. Craig introduced a holistic strategy to harm reduction, including culturally sensitive practices such as smudging at events. Karmik wanted to make people feel welcome and safe. Kufner’s panel took the direction of research and evidence, the things that a harm reduction group relies on – knowledge of the community, an ear to those who listen. Soleil brought a more international perspective, despite being from Montreal. Her talk focused on some of the work other organizations in Europe had done, as well as GRIP’s work, featuring models for the future. Stuart’s conversation took a completely different approach than the others. Probably the funniest panelist I watched, with lines like “gay men, having sex, have fun.” He discussed how after years of stigma, gay men were looking for human connection through their sexuality, and finding it in problematic relationships with substances.
The last workshop I attended was drug related emergencies with Greg Khaymov and Cameron Reid from Parkdale CHC, Kris Guthrie from The Works, and Michael Vipperman. It was one of the few talks where it seemed like the audience had as good of a grasp on the content as everyone else. When you are talking about overdose, a well-educated populace is definitely a positive thing! Khaymov and Reid discussed the drug combinations that would lead to an OD. The audience was really engaged, asking various questions from the experts on the panel, breaking down the usual structure of speeches. Guthrie’s talk centered on the importance of naloxone, an opiate antagonist that temporarily blocks the effects of opiates and therefore, opiate overdose. While I had heard of naloxone before, and how it was difficult for friends and family of opiate users to have access to, I had no idea that its effects only lasted 60- 90 minutes, meaning that regardless, a hospital trip would be required. The panel took a turn in an interesting direction with Vipperman’s talk about manufacturing the best psychedelic experience possible. Built off the work of famous psychedelic psychiatrist Stanislov Grof, Vipperman ran through facilitating people through intense psychedelic experiences, and addressed a biological importance to having your consciousness expanded!
New CSSDP National Board celebrating the most successful conference yet!
The annual general meeting was full of energy and excitement, as members of CSSDP’s board explained the voting system and the role that people would play should they be elected. 7 seats were available on the board, 4 regular positions and 3 alternates. The board took turns explaining what it was like to be on the board, illustrating the experience we have working with each other, namely, a beautiful mess. To be honest I felt out of place as each new potential board member came up to talk. Some of them were far more qualified than I was, and it made me wonder whether I would have been elected had I tried to run this year. We had PhD candidates and activists, a good balance of the theoretical with the practical. After all the votes were tabulated, the new board members were chosen. In no particular order, those who were elected to the board as voting members: Nick Cristiano, Christopher Ducas, Chris Carroll, and Gonzo Nieto. The three non-voting members who were elected to the board were: Dessy Pavlova, Steff Pinch and Ella Quarrey. With a newly filled board, and a conference that has been nothing less than exciting, a new chapter begins for CSSDP.