This is first of two posts in our conference roundup – click here for Part 2.

Events come and go, but for CSSDP members, there’s just nothing like our annual conference. It’s always been an inspiring and energizing event, and this year’s event – hosted by our University of Calgary chapter – was no different.

The conference followed months of planning and a well-coordinated promotional blitz. Here’s what happened next.

Thursday, March 1
We landed our first press with a piece in OpenFile Calgary. In his article, James Wilt interviewed Carlos Negraeff, the head of our University of Calgary chapter, and they discussed our conference in light of Bill C-10, which would introduce mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes and other charges.
Friday, March 2

The conference kicked off with a screening of the film Cocaine Unwrapped, telling the story of cocaine and the people who use it, smuggle it, enforce the laws prohibiting it, and are otherwise affected by the drug and its trade. The movie led into a Q&A session via Skype with Zara Snapp, the international liaison for our partner organization, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, who lives in Mexico and was able to shed some light on the suffering the cocaine trade has caused in that country.

Saturday, March 3
The first full day of speakers and workshops, with 80 attendees in-person and more participating online, watching our first-ever livestream or following on Twitter and Facebook.
This tweet said it all:

Using the conference to promote Twitter and other online tools had been one of our goals. With chapters spread throughout our huge country, geography is not on our side, so we were naturally interested in ways to make it easier for people to connect online. The flurry of tweets, retweets and pictures with the #cssdp12 conference hash tag provided an important backchannel for conference participants, and a way for those watching from afar to get into the thick of the action.


The day started with our keynote speaker, Marliss Taylor from Streetworks (a harm reduction organization in Edmonton) discussing the long arc of history – including the Indian Residential schools – and how we ended up where we are today with drug policy.

Our next speakers went further into the theme of harm reduction, with slightly different backgrounds and perspectives.

Scott Bernstein, from the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, discussed InSite – which he had defended at the Supreme Court of Canada – and the swirling cultural trends that were affecting it and other safe-injection sites.

Donald Macpherson, director of the year-old Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and a CSSDP appointed member, gave a general overview of what drug prohibition had done to our society. Pointing to the criminal elements in the illegal drug trade and the recent deaths from PMMA-contaminated ecstasy, Donald laid out how our current policies are maximizing harm – not reducing it – and called for a new approach.

The third panellist, Jennifer Vanderschaege, talked about the difficulties of doing AIDS-related harm reduction work in rural Alberta with the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society. While there was plenty of frustration, she also related the surprising allies she’d found, and suggested that when doing things that are unpopular, sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

After the panel ended, the group split into two breakout sessions. Jen from CAANS did her second speaking bit of the day, discussing community responses to policy changes, while Heather Koller, from our Thunder Bay CSSDP chapter, showed how drug dealers (and other unlikely characters) could be used as harm reduction allies. After the workshop, Heather interviewed with the CBC for an article that was published the next day.

Time for some lunch, and then our afternoon panel, called “Talking about drug policy”. Who are the voices out there? What do they know? What don’t they know yet, that they should? How do you talk to them about it?

The first speaker, the University of Victoria’s Dr. Susan Boyd, presented on bias in how grow-op busts are reported. The mainstream media tends to portray grow-ops as run by organized crime; while many are, there is in fact a wide spectrum of different types: rural and urban, low-budget mom & pop operations, and more intricate setups.

The second speaker, CSSDP board member Karl Smyth, gave the audience a tutorial on how to talk about and debate drug policy. He pointed out the difficulties that come with challenging long-held beliefs, and the importance of finding common ground in values and beliefs.

The third speaker, Meera Bai, shared her experience in promoting harm reduction among evangelical Christians. A Christian herself, she has found that by understanding and explaining harm reduction work through Christian values, she has found strength and support among members of the religious community.

As in the morning, the panel then took questions from the audience and online. The following exchange I had with Meera showed the possibilities for dialogue we had opened up by bringing the conference online:


Gotta love technology.

Time for a break. Click here to for Part 2!