SSDP 2016 Conference: An Overview

SSDP 2016 Conference: An Overview

Having been a chapter leader for the University of Toronto chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy for the last year, I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2016 Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in Washington, DC.

There were 9 other people representing CSSDP chapters, with people coming from Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Manitoba. Something that made an impression on me was that each one of us had our own personal reasons for becoming involved with drug activism. Besides supporting rational, evidence-based laws and policies that save lives and tax money, I feel everyone I have met has been harmed in some way by the failed system of drug prohibition. My peers had a range of professional interests including harm reduction, drug testing at clubs and social events, the effects of LSD on reducing domestic violence, legalization of marijuana, and HIV healthcare. My main area of interest is alcohol policy. A common theme was the compassionate desire to reduce harm and increase the well-being of people who use drugs.


Drug Policy Activism on College Campuses

One of the panels I attended discussed drug policy student activism and how to increase awareness and participation on college campuses. It was a more personal meeting with members sharing stories on why they became involved in SSDP. One story in particular was powerful and speaks volumes. A moderator of the talk said that one night on her campus two girls that she knew tried to climb the side of her building to get to a friend’s locked apartment. One of the girls slipped and fell from the 3rd story. As the girl who fell lay on her stomach, bleeding badly, she asked the moderator to get the small amount of marijuana from her bra. When that proved impossible, she asked her friend to roll her over so she could get the pot before the ambulance arrived. The speaker refused, as she could have done significant further damage to a possible spinal injury. The American campus had a zero tolerance policy and the girl was at risk of expulsion for possession. Thankfully the girl was ultimately okay and the school made a minor exception for her, but this example was an excellent illustration of the unintended consequences that zero tolerance policies can have.


Drugs and Dark Net Markets

I also had the privilege to listen to the mother of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht. The story of Lyn Ulbricht’s son is infamous. Ross founded a website where people could trade illegal goods or services that would operate on the ‘dark web.’ He was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics in 2015 and is now serving a life sentence without parole. Lyn Ulbricht detailed many concerning issues with Ross’s case. For example, the two cryptanalyst FBI agents were later arrested and charged with corruption for profiteering from their involvement with Silk Road. As well, the judge dismissed vital evidence from being presented to the jury, and it was acknowledged in the trial that the interactions between administrators on Silk Road could have been any number of people who were not Ross. The entire trial has raised the question of whether the creator of a website is wholly responsible for all interactions and transactions that occur on that site. In short, the case against Ross was highly politicized. The prosecution used the case to make an example out of him, and as a result, now another non-violent offender is serving an egregious amount of prison time.

Drug markets will always exist and are intractable. The fact they have now moved into online spaces is entirely unsurprising. Some research actually shows virtual drug sales can decrease violence related to illegal drug transactions. When a drug network gets shut down, whether it is Silk Road, a cartel in Mexico, or street dealers in Toronto, other individuals, groups, or services will inevitably step in to fill their place.


Drugs and Education

Kenneth Tupper is a psychedelic researcher from British Columbia who gave two talks at the conference. I attended one on drugs and education. Kenneth made the poignant comparison to abstinence-only sex and drug education. It ignores the reality that many teens both have sex and try drugs, and often do so in risky ways. Rather than setting the unrealistic goal of abstinence for everyone, youth should be given realistic and accurate information by trusted adults in a classroom instead. Places where abstinence-only sex education programs are implemented usually have higher rates of teen pregnancy and STIs, which only further attests to the inability of these programs to reduce the harms they seek to address. Drug education for teens has been historically full of ignorance and stigma. I can recall believing that marijuana was physically addictive and that magic mushrooms made your brain bleed, both of which are demonstrably false. Talking openly about illegal drugs has been (and still is) very stigmatized and therefore people do not get honest and potentially harm reducing information. While there was a sexual revolution in the 1960s resulting in gradual improvements to sex education across Canada, there has not been a similar movement with drug use.


Law Enforcement and Drug Policy

The organization LEAP gave me a unique hope regarding drug prohibition policy. The Law Enforcement Against Prohibition representative gave a compelling case against drug possession arrests. He wanted to shift the focus of drug use to a public health perspective and not a criminal one, so that police officers could direct their time and resources towards arresting violent offenders. Police officers are the main enforcers of harmful drug policy and their behavior and discretion has a significant impact on people who use drugs. There are many good police officers, some of whom I know personally, and bad laws and policy are the cause of a lot of abuse, corruption, and bad policing. Officers need to be trained to effectively increase safety and well-being in communities and not devote their time or resources to locking up non-violent individuals who are doing no more wrong than someone getting drunk off alcohol. Policing drug use causes far more suffering than it prevents and it was very refreshing to see active and former law enforcement agents acknowledge this perspective.


International Drug Policy

I attended a United Nations-led talk on the global impact of international drug policy. The UN and the United States have been the leaders in forming and implementing institutionalized state and civil action regarding illegal drugs. UN conventions in 1961, 1971 and 1988 all guide the current prohibition framework for the majority of countries on Earth.

The effects of international drug prohibition are far more violent and harmful in Central and South America and other developing, drug producing nations. At minimum, 60 000 people (and more likely closer to 150 000) have died in Mexico’s drug war since 2006. Violence and homicide related to control of illicit drug markets is arguably the most brutal and tragic component of drug prohibition. As well, over 260 000 Mexicans have been deported from the USA and separated from their families due to drug-related charges.

The United Nations and all member states should focus on the human rights of drug users, public health, human security and collective development. Evidence shows that the historical socio-legal model of the criminalization of substance use has failed to decrease the production of drugs, the market for drugs or harmful drug use.


Ethics in Drug Consumption

The ethics in drug consumption talk emphasized the political and racial nature of the war on drugs. Drug laws are a form of social control and oppression. They violate fundamental human rights. The first drug laws in existence targeted Chinese immigrants and opium consumption. Marijuana prohibition developed as a result of fear of Mexican drug use. The differences in crack cocaine versus powder cocaine sentencing disproportionately have affected African Americans. Stigma and laws against entheogens have been colored by discrimination and fear against indigenous peoples who have used the plants for religious purposes for millennia. People of lower socioeconomic status are arrested and charged for drug possession at incredibly higher rates than wealthy people. Drug laws and their practical implementation do not exist outside of their racist and classist context and history.

I left the conference feeling inspired. The stories I heard, while at times intense and difficult, filled me with hope for the future. I am confident that this type of social movement is gaining momentum and this generation is questioning ineffective and harmful state-made policies rooted in hate, fear, and ignorance.

Kyle Lumsden

Kyle Lumsden


A 4th year University of Toronto undergrad majoring in political science and sociology, Kyle's aims to get his master’s degree in public policy, currently works for a criminologist researching recidivism in the USA, and has been involved with CSSDP Toronto for the past year. Find out more.

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Dispensary Raids and the Role of Civil Disobedience in Human Rights

Dispensary Raids and the Role of Civil Disobedience in Human Rights

Last week, Toronto Police raided 43 dispensaries, arresting over 90 people, and handing out roughly 200 charges in a mass arrest they’re calling “Project Claudia.” While some defend the actions taken by the city’s police, referencing the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to reform any of the existing laws on cannabis sales, medical cannabis activists have expressed their outrage with the aggressive action. Under the current medical cannabis legislation, Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, storefront marijuana sales are illegal and patients are restricted to ordering their cannabis online from one of 30 licensed producers (LPs). However, many medical cannabis patients prefer to support their local dispensaries which is what has allowed a reported 126 stores to thrive.

Many activists argue that revoking access to storefront dispensaries will not direct more people towards legal cannabis, but rather that it will only drive more traffic to street dealers who sell to anyone in public spaces, regardless of age or prescription, and without any of the educational resources that the dispensaries provide. These dispensaries also offer a variety of other medical cannabis products (such as topicals, extracts, tinctures, edibles, etc.) that provide relief for an array of different conditions and cannot be accessed through LPs.

Following the raids, dispensary supporters rallied together, organizing protests as well as a march from the Toronto Police Headquarters to City Hall during the press conference held by the Toronto Police on the incident. The raids have been compared to operation SOAP, the only police action in Toronto that equates with the wide scope of Project Claudia. This attack on the Canadian LGBTQ+ community targeted bathhouses and led to the arrests of almost 300 gay men and over $35,000 in damages. This sparked outrage within the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, and they organized protests and street demonstrations that eventually became Pride Week as we know it today. In accordance with this comparison, today, June 1st, literally marks the launch of Pride Month in Toronto; happy pride!

Canada is often hailed as a progressive country, but it’s important to remember the challenges and injustices that have led to such progressive change. There was a time before women had the right to vote, before gay people had the right to get married, and there are STILL areas of Canada and aboriginal territories in which indigenous people barely have the same rights and protections as the rest of the country. Morality is not synonymous with legality and unjust laws are an undeniable global reality; Canada is no exception. That isn’t to say we aren’t progressive; for example, in Canada’s official statement at UNGASS last month, our Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, denounced reefer madness and acknowledged the harms caused by prohibition. Yet they’re still allowing these admittedly unjust laws to justify police locking nonviolent offenders and harassing sick people. An approach that is quite clearly increasing the harms of being a user of the cannabis plant.

We wouldn’t have the progressive human rights we have here today if we didn’t protest, rally, and fight for them, further progress won’t be made without more of the same. If it wasn’t for a little bit of civil disobedience here and there, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Looking to our neighbours in the south, some states seem to be going backwards and further stripping people of their rights – transgender people in particular – with these exclusionary bathroom laws. The only real way to avoid repeating these violations of fundamental human rights is to make sure we remember the mistakes of the past and learn from them

As part of an organization that focuses on policy and as someone with an interest in business, I understand the importance of public policy. But there comes a point where laws are not protecting people, but rather serve as  tools for their oppression. This is the fundamental problem with the war on drugs. I’m not defending the fact that these dispensaries are totally unregulated, evading taxes, nor am I denying that some of these dispensaries may be linked to crime; but to be fair there was a shawarma shop in my hometown that got nabbed smuggling guns and cocaine and I don’t villainize hummus because of it. Most of these issues are a direct result of prohibition. A flourishing underground criminal market and the further stigmatization of an industry with huge medical, environmental, nutritional, and economic potential is working against the best interests of the law, government, and society as a whole.

I’m excited to see what the task force tackling cannabis regulation will do, but these arrests bring up a scary reality. Government lobbying is common practice in politics and a lot of people are fighting over access to this industry, primarily the more powerful licensed producers and the dispensary owners (many of whom have been at the forefront of cannabis rights activism.) These raids send a message that our government thinks dispensaries cause more problems than they solve and that they shouldn’t have a role in establishing the new regulatory model for cannabis production and sales. I disagree. The real danger lies in regulating cannabis too strictly, and creating an oligopoly instead of creating jobs. If independent growers can not enter the regulated and legitimized cannabis market, there will be no incentive or platform for them to move away from the black market. There are so many potential jobs at stake and so much money to be put back into the economy, but in order for that to happen we need to make sure the industry is accessible; especially by the people who fought for it. People who have been victims of prohibition deserve access to the benefits legalization will bring.

Heather D'Alessio

Heather D'Alessio

Chapter Liaison

An Algonquin College business student focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, Heather is fascinated by corporate social responsibility within the cannabis industry, with a passion for the relationship between food, health, and sustainability, and is an advocate for drug policy based on human rights and
public health.
Learn more about Heather.