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.
At this year’s Reform conference, SSDP partnered with CSSDP and SSDP UK to host a simulation of the upcoming Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. This event provided students with an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the workings and intricacies of the drug policy reform movement on the international level.
The Model UNGASS took place over two days. On Day 1, three committees convened, each with the goal of producing a series of recommendations which the General Assembly would consider on Day 2. These were the Committees on Drugs and Health, Drugs and Crime, and Human Rights and Alternative Development. The member states of each committee were tasked with weighing in on and proposing recommendations within the scope of their committee. All participating students were required to study and prepare a brief on their country’s policy and stances on drug laws, allowing them to act and vote in accordance not with their personal views but with that of the country they represented.
The Committee on Drugs and Health emerged with several successful recommendations from Canada, which called for the expansion of syringe exchange programs, increased access to naloxone, increased access to medical cannabis, and a reformation of drug sentencing laws that is in accordance with a view of drug use as a public health issue, rather than one of criminal justice. Other recommendations passed by the committee were supportive of a wide range of policy measures, including the decriminalizing drug consumption and possession, expanding safe and supervised drug consumption programs, improving and expanding of services available to treat dependence, and eliminating the death sentence as well as mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offences. Member states in this country passed a large number of recommendations, seeming to have effectively found many points of agreement.
The Committee on Human Rights and Alternative Development similarly seemed to find more points of agreement than disagreement. Here, Canadian delegates passed two recommendations: one to legalize the production and exportation of industrial hemp, and the other to legalize and regulate cannabis, with its taxation aimed at funding public drug education programs. Other countries passed recommendations which sought to grant licit opium production rights to Afghanistan in order to combat
The Committee on Drugs and Crime though was significantly more divided. Here the Latin American countries tried tirelessly to pass policies to end the policy of coca eradication in countries like Colombia. The debate was strong and diverse with countries working on compromises through amendments that might be acceptable for just enough people to pass their agenda. Of the four recommendations made, the only recommendation that was able to get passed and reviewed on the second day was one that was aimed at creating a standard for asset seizure and money laundering, which was unanimously accepted.
On day 2, all of the committees came together to focus on the recommendations made the day before. CSSDP Co-chair Gonzo Nieto took on the role of notetaker in the room so that recommendations and subsequent amendments were visible to all of delegates as changes were made to the recommendations. Each country had one vote available to them. Unlike day 1, day 2 was primarily focused on either the passing or failing of each recommendation. The Canadian delegation represented by CSSDP Algonquin chapter leader Heather D’Alessio and Personnel Liaison Alexander Betsos worked on passing the recommendations made by the Canadian team prior and were able to get most of their recommendations from the day before passed. Due to the sheer volume of recommendations and the time limit at the conference not all of the recommendations had time to be read and that discussed. Details on the recommendations approved by the General Assembly on Day 2 can be found here.
The Model UNGASS was an excellent introduction to the world of international drug policy reform for many of our Reform attendees. It helped foster a greater awareness of the issues that need attention at the international level and highlighted the necessity of inter-country collaboration to build a common base of support for new policies. We hope to collaborate on more initiatives like this in the future with SSDP and SSDP UK!
It was refreshing to be around so many people with the shared goal of bringing the war on drugs to an end and yet so many diverse motivations and paths towards that goal. Many people I met had been more deeply impacted by the drug war than I could have imagined, and several of the plenary speakers were former prisoners of nonviolent drug crimes, true victims of drug war policies. The first day opened with a resounding reminder that while the war on drugs has universal impacts on our society, it is overwhelmingly a war on people of colour, based not on who uses what substance but who is perceived to use those substances. While there were certainly victories being celebrated—the Obama administration is in the process of pardoning thousands of prisoners—there are still many who suffer in a very direct way simply by virtue of their interest in, or perceived need to use drugs.
With an interest in mental health and research, I am not often exposed to the full spectrum of ways in which people’s lives are destroyed by our current drug policy. Hearing the accounts of Kemba Smith, Jose Hernandez and others make it difficult to ignore the dehumanizing nature of existing drug policies and affirmed my belief that drug policy reform is one of the most important unresolved issues in our society. Kemba was chained to a bed after giving birth in prison for a ‘crime’ that effectively amounts to having dated an emotionally abusive drug dealer. I would argue that this is in violation of at least several human rights stipulations. Unfortunately, there are many and more such violations occurring regularly.
While discussion on drug policy tends to take the form of reducing the harms of taking drugs, I found myself interested in where we can go with decriminalization following the continuing success of the cannabis reform movement. In addition to what harms we remove from people’s lives, I wanted to know what improvements we can bring with drug policy based on scientific evidence and respect for the rights and freedoms of the individual. In fewer words – what does the endgame of drug policy look like and how do we get there? I knew that a session in the first round of talks, titled “What are the Goals of Drug Policy Reform and How Do We Connect the Dots?” would be an ideal way to set the tone for the weekend. This talk covered the Drug Policy Alliance’s four ultimate goals.
- Legalize Cannabis
- End Mass Incarceration
- Decriminalization of All Drugs
- Create Legal Access for Determined Consumers
At first hearing that legal access of all drugs to consumers was a goal, I’ll admit I was surprised. Not because it seemed an undesirable aim, but rather by the fact that such a progressive motive was behind policy approaches. But the argument provided is as simple as it is persuasive. Legal access is itself a form of harm reduction. It makes little sense to decriminalize use and leave individuals to the hands of unregulated markets for their supply. To do so would be to increase harm by virtue of the law alone. Ideally, we should not only minimize the risk for infection and disease associated with injection drug use – we should also protect the integrity of the individual’s body, brain, and overall health.
This is simply not possible if we don’t respect the fact that people will always use drugs regardless of what is done to prevent that. This set of ideas was taken further in a session I attended on Friday about the Darknet and the Silk Road. The panel included Kirk Ulbricht, father of the Silk Road’s founder, Ross Ulbricht. Silk Road was a darknet market, an eBay-style black market for selling goods online in exchange for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin—in due time it became a place where one could find and purchase drugs, weapons, and other illicit goods. It was started in 2011 and brought the darknet into the public eye in 2013 when its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was convicted of operating Silk Road. Unsurprisingly, this only resulted in a number of other sites popping up to fill the void in the market. Ulbricht’s case is infamous, as his prison sentence of two life terms hinged on the use of unproven allegations that murder for hire had been transacted on Silk Road.
Ulbricht’s case has also brought up an interesting debate: Is he a criminal, or are services like Silk Road actually reducing the harms of drug use? Standard arguments revolve around reducing instances of what one panel member referred to as “the Scarface moment’. This is the time where the buyer and seller of drugs meet in person. The internet ultimately proves to be safer for purchasing drugs because, as one panelist said, you can’t really get stabbed on the internet. Substance analysis research has shown that drugs purchased through such online markets also tend to be purer. Feedback and rating systems create accountability that prevent dealers from continuously selling bad product. People will simply stop buying from sources reported for adulterating or giving false information about the drugs they are selling. This sort of accountability is not always possible in street level transactions. In keeping with the goals of the Drug Policy Alliance, it is always safer to have choice over what you put into your body.
Another discussion that left an impression on me was on the topic of novel psychoactive substances. With a research interest in psychedelics, I felt I couldn’t miss this. Many of these novel substances (NBOMES, DOI) are sold in place of LSD. Not only do these substances result in quite uncomfortable experiences, they are many times more dangerous than LSD (which is in fact one of the most pharmacologically safe drugs). 25I-NBOMe, for example, can cause extreme constriction of the veins and multiple organ failures resulting in death. Some LSD experimenters may be looking to meet a god of sorts, but certainly not that literally. The question to be asked then is this:
Do current drug policy approaches and methods make drugs themselves more dangerous?
Many seem to agree that this is the case. Substances that are banned can be replaced as quickly as within a week, and these novel substances are generally not being tested for safety. This makes the need to appropriately regulate existing compounds all the more pressing. By making substances that we know to be at least fairly safe (i.e., cannabis, LSD) illegal, we are effectively exposing people to harm that would not otherwise exist by driving them to seek legal but less safe alternatives.