An Interview with Gonzo Nieto (Part Three)

An Interview with Gonzo Nieto (Part Three)

What are some local examples that show the positive impacts of harm reduction?

There’s an organization in Montreal called Group de recherche et d’intervention psychosociale (GRIP). They are a francophone harm reduction group based on Montreal with whom I have volunteered in the past.

They are invited to various events and festivals in Montreal, specifically events where people are regularly using drugs. They have well-trained and knowledgeable people staffing tables at these events, and they provide safer drug use information and answer questions that event attendees may have. This is an important service because many people have not have had an open place to have conversation about drugs and get their questions answered.

Unfortunately, the law prohibits groups in Canada from bringing drug testing equipment to such events, so they are not able to provide that service at this time.

 

What about online resources, e.g. forums and discussion groups?

There can be a lot of value in online discussion forums and groups. Although, in a forum, you might not know who is speaking or how much weight to put on what they say. It can be hard to ascertain the credibility of the information. It’s important to take things with a grain of salt and not rely solely on what one person said.

Because of the nature of drug laws and the stigma around open discussion on drugs in public and in person, a lot of great resources exist online. The website Erowid.org has provided thousands of people with very open, non-judgmental information about an incredibly large variety of drugs for years.

Outside of forums and discussion groups, many harm reduction groups have also built useful resources online. TRIP, a Toronto-based harm reduction group, is a great example. These groups provide reliable information on drug use. Many people turn to these groups because they provide an open and non-judgmental forum to find information and get your questions answered.

 

What national harm reduction experts come to mind?

I have to mention the executive director of GRIP in Montreal, Julie Soleil-Meeson. She’s wonderful. The work that she does providing harm reduction services around Montreal is very beneficial, and she is also very passionate about bringing drug checking services into Canada.

As well, I would mention TRIP as a whole. There are many staff there working in a variety of capacities. They are educated, open, and they do great work both onsite and online. From my interactions with them, they embody the attitude that people working in this field need to have to be effective.

Lastly, I would mention Karmik in Vancouver, which is a nightlife harm reduction group. They provide harm reduction services to events and festivals in their area, and they were founded by Alex Betsos, who is a former board member of CSSDP.

 


 

Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen

Member-at-large

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping (lifting, mowing, and raking) and gardening (digging, planting, and weeding). He founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He is a Tobis Fellow (2016) at the University of California, Irvine’s (UCI) Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality (Ethics Center). He researches in the Learning Analytics Research Group, works as the Gordon Neighbourhood House Community Journalist/Blogger, researches and writes for the Marijuana Party of Canada, and is a contributor for The Voice Magazine. UCI Ethics Center awarded him with the distinction of Francisco Ayala Scholar (2014) for mentoring, presenting, researching, and writing. If you want to contact Scott, you may inquire or comment through e-mail: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
An Interview with Gonzo Nieto (Part Two)

An Interview with Gonzo Nieto (Part Two)

What is your perspective on the theory of harm reduction as a philosophy?

Harm reduction works from the perspective that you should meet people where they are rather than tell people what to do or not do. The reality is people will use drugs. If you solely tell people not to use drugs and they choose to anyway, you’re not the one they’ll come to with questions or if they need support. We need to provide people with the best education tools, strategies, and services with the aim of reducing preventable harms and risks from drug use.

 

Is the harm reduction approach the best way to minimize harm on youth?

It’s important to note that prevention is a harm reduction strategy, but it falls short when it’s the only strategy. We have to recognize youth use drugs too, regardless of how good your work around prevention is.

Anyone who has gone through high school knows young people are using drugs, whether that be alcohol, cannabis, or other drugs. An educational system or approach that only preaches to not drink or use drugs is not sufficient — of course, that may be a sufficient deterrent for some youth, and that’s good, but others will still choose to try.

I think that the later into adolescence and early adulthood that we can delay the initiation of drug use, the better the health consequences. We know youth who are younger when they start drinking, smoking, or using other drugs are more likely to struggle with substance dependence and have other negative health outcomes.

I think prevention is part of a good harm reduction strategy – for youth and adults alike. The important thing is that work around prevention cannot be based on fear. It needs to be evidence-based by drawing on the available research and presenting it in a way that permits people to make their own decisions.

When we use fear-based approaches, which often rely on exaggeration, people find out sooner or later that the information they were given was false or blown out of proportion. This erodes people’s trust. If this information comes from a teacher or a close adult, this leads youth to lose trust in someone who could have otherwise been a source of guidance and support on this topic.

 

What are some general effects we’ve seen in Canada in practicing Harm Reduction?

Broadly speaking, harm reductions strategies allow people to make safer and healthier choices for themselves.

Take cannabis, for example. if people are going to use cannabis, having appropriate information about dosage and what to expect can be the difference between having a negative and overwhelming experience or having a pleasant experience. Similarly, having clear and non-judgmental information about any long-term health consequences, or about substance dependence, can make a world of difference in preventing harm.

By and large, especially if this type of education is provided by the people youth trust, whether peer-based education or the education coming from adults, teachers, and parents, there’s more forethought, information, and consideration behind the decision to use drugs.

 


 

Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen

Member-at-large

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping (lifting, mowing, and raking) and gardening (digging, planting, and weeding). He founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He is a Tobis Fellow (2016) at the University of California, Irvine’s (UCI) Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality (Ethics Center). He researches in the Learning Analytics Research Group, works as the Gordon Neighbourhood House Community Journalist/Blogger, researches and writes for the Marijuana Party of Canada, and is a contributor for The Voice Magazine. UCI Ethics Center awarded him with the distinction of Francisco Ayala Scholar (2014) for mentoring, presenting, researching, and writing. If you want to contact Scott, you may inquire or comment through e-mail: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
An Interview with Gonzo Nieto (Part One)

An Interview with Gonzo Nieto (Part One)

How did you become interested in being involved in drug policy in Canada?

My interest with drug policy began with my own use, which started with cannabis as a teen. A lot of my peers were using drugs, both in high school and university. That all began to get me interested in the phenomenon of drug use in general.

What really caught my interest was psychedelics, after I had my first experience with psilocybin mushrooms. I began to educate myself pretty extensively about psychedelics. I would spend hours listening to lectures and talks by various people, reading books, and browsing forums and seeing what was there in terms of other people’s experiences.

This got the ball rolling as I began to discover how large and diverse the field of drug policy is, and I fell further and further down the ‘rabbit hole’.

 

With respect to personal use, how much knowledge did you have beforehand about medical and psychological effects?

Not very much, I didn’t come into drug use in a very informed way. It was youthful curiosity and blissful ignorance that led me to try cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms. These experiences stoked my curiosity, and then I got to educating myself more. When I started smoking pot, I didn’t know much other than that my friends were using it.

When some of my peers were using psychedelics in high school, I mostly recall hearing myths and lies about psychedelics. I remember hearing kids at school say that magic mushrooms make your brain bleed, and that’s why you hallucinate. Silly stuff like that. I remember others saying it was a fun trip, describing psychedelics like the next level up from pot, which I came to learn is not the case — they’re completely different.

But like most people, I wasn’t very well educated about drugs prior to encountering and trying them. I didn’t have good drug education at my school, at least “good” by my standards — what we got was police officers come to our school to scare us about the scourge of drugs.

 

How did you get involved with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy?

After I graduated university, my partner motivated me to start writing a column on drugs using the knowledge I had amassed during the previous five years of my undergrad. I began writing a column in the student newspaper, which I called Turning Inward.

The column went really well. Pretty much every time I published an article, it became one of the most read articles in the student newspaper for that week. I continued writing articles regularly for about seven months.

One of the articles that I wrote was called MDMA: A Guide to Harm Reduction. I wrote it because several friends that previous week had asked me questions about MDMA that, to me, were fairly basic because of what I had been learning and reading about. I realized this sort of stuff wasn’t common knowledge for most of my peers.

CSSDP shared my article on Twitter. I contacted CSSDP to thank them for sharing it and to ask how I could get involved. They responded that I should try to attend their conference coming up in Toronto. At the conference, they were electing new members to the organization’s board, so I decided to put my name in the hat.

 

What do you consider the core principle of CSSDP?

Primarily, I would say the core value is the idea that drug use should not be treated as a criminal justice issue, but rather as an issue of public health and social cohesion.

 

Two philosophies compete with regards to how to deal with issues like youth drug use, the zero tolerance approach and the harm reduction model. Which do you prefer, and why?

I stand by the harm reduction model, without question. In the debates around drug use, these two models are sometimes presented as though they are equally valid in some sense, but I think there’s a strong case to be made that the punitive approach is in denial of reality.

That perspective is based on the assumption that some set of actions could be taken which would result in total abstinence across the board. That’s just not true, as demonstrated by the decades that precede us.

Drug use appears to be a core component of the human species. To say that human drug use dates back tens of thousands of years is probably a conservative estimate. Any recorded history of humans shows humans using drugs. It’s not a new phenomenon. What is relatively new is outlawing and punishing drug use, and there’s an argument to be made that the punishments in place for drug crimes cause far more damage to the individual and society than the use of drugs does in the first place.

The harm reduction model recognizes that, no matter how refined the attempts at prevention may be, some people will still choose to use drugs, and there needs to be education and services in place that help reduce the preventable harms associated with that drug use.
Harm reduction meets people where they are rather than telling them what they should or should not do. It says, “If you do use, here’s some information and services to ensure your safety and to help minimize preventable harms.”

 


 

Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen

Member-at-large

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping (lifting, mowing, and raking) and gardening (digging, planting, and weeding). He founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He is a Tobis Fellow (2016) at the University of California, Irvine’s (UCI) Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality (Ethics Center). He researches in the Learning Analytics Research Group, works as the Gordon Neighbourhood House Community Journalist/Blogger, researches and writes for the Marijuana Party of Canada, and is a contributor for The Voice Magazine. UCI Ethics Center awarded him with the distinction of Francisco Ayala Scholar (2014) for mentoring, presenting, researching, and writing. If you want to contact Scott, you may inquire or comment through e-mail: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Evidence-Based Drug Policy in Russia?

Evidence-Based Drug Policy in Russia?

A commentary on the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem Panel Discussion

 

Addiction (Source: Flickr)

 

At UNGASS, the Russian Federation hosted a panel discussion on the topic of science-based evidence and drug policy.

Panelists included Mr. Aldo Lale-Demoz, Director of the Division for Operations and Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; Dr. Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, World Health Organization; HE Mr Khaled Abdel-Rahman Shamaa Chair of the UNGASS Board, as well as a representative from the Russian Federation.

 

The panelists argued that drug policy decisions are often made with insufficient consideration of scientific evidence and are heavily influenced by ideological and political motivations. They offered evidence-based recommendations which they hoped would be reflected in future drug policy such as the adoption of non-punitive approaches to drug use prevention and treatment.

 

The representative from the Russian Federation echoed that drug policy needs to be based on scientific evidence and asserted that their current drug policies are in line with these principles. Throughout UNGASS similar assertions were often made – virtually every country justifies their drug policy as evidence based and in alignment with human rights.

 

However, in many cases, these statements are purely rhetorical.

 

In Russia, there is an ongoing epidemic of HIV and hepatitis C, spread mainly through intravenous drug use. Their drug and health policies prohibit funding of widely accepted harm-reduction programmes such as methadone treatments and needle exchange programs. These policies, in part, have led to the rising prevalence of HIV and Hepatitis C. Projections suggest that HIV prevalence among the Russian population will double by 2019, reaching two million cases.

 

After the panel’s presentation, I had the chance to address the Russian representative about her assertions. I referenced the rising prevalence of HIV and Hepatitis C in Russia and asked what kind of evidence needs to be realized for Russian authorities to endorse and implement harm reduction practices such as methadone treatments.

 

The Russian delegate responded that they view drug addition as a disease of the brain and thus could not be appropriately addressed by the measures I suggested. She added, in reference to methadone treatments for heroin addicts, that it would not be right to substitute one drug of abuse for another. She continued along these lines of reasoning, suggesting that those harm reduction policies would never allow for a drug-free world.

 

Following the Russian delegate’s response, Dr. Saxena, the representative from the WHO, also addressed my comments, providing support to my assertions. Dr. Saxena stated there was evidence that both methadone treatment and needle exchange programs are effective in reducing individual and societal harms of drug use. According to her, there is no scientific rationale for prohibiting these harm reduction policies.

 

In reflecting upon this exchange, it is necessary to consider the real-world consequences of drug policy. On one level these prohibitive drug policies implemented by Russian authorities are abstract political discussions, but in application the policies are responsible for tangible harm and suffering. Russia’s refusal to implement evidence-based drug treatment and harm reduction measures has contributed to hundreds of thousands of cases of HIV and hepatitis C. The human rights and dignity of drug users are violated – they are not able to access safe and effective treatment for their substance use problems.

 

Read more about the consequences of Russian drug policy here:

HIV and AIDS in Eastern Europe & Central Asia

The Guardian: Russian HIV-Aids epidemic worsening under Kremlin policies, says expert

Vice News: Russia’s AIDS Epidemic Reaches Crisis Levels

Andras Lenart

Andras Lenart

A Master's student at McGill University in Montreal, Andras is investigating the patient experience of persons living with HIV in the Quebec and French healthcare systems, and is involved with CSSDP McGill. Find out more.