Alex Betsos

CSSDP’s conference began like all good conferences that discuss touchy topics do, with lively discussion. CSSDP’s 7th Annual National Conference on drug policy is our best attended, and not just in terms of the amount of people in seats. The discussion went into deep and personal stories from the audience on their personal usage with substances, and ultimately set the tone for the rest of the conference; everyone has a strong opinion on what the world of drug policy should look like, and in a world where we are so often left holding our signs in silence, a bit of protest is justified.

City of Toronto Councillor Joe Cressy’s opening remarks looked at the different impacts of evidence based approaches to drug policy.  Once the panels started, the panelists were met with an opinionated crowd in part led by pot activist Marc Emery, who rallied against calls for a public health model of cannabis usage. Standing beside 4 pillars pioneer Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) Executive Director Donald MacPherson, Cressy started the conference off by placing the audience and themselves in the current world of local public policy. Toronto is looking at discussions on what cannabis policing looks like within the city, and what impact the war on drugs can have on the people who use within its cities.

The panel itself was titled Public Health Approaches to Drug Policy, and featured experts from within the field, to discuss the importance of the public health approach to regulating drugs. It offered a future world, one where drugs were heavily restricted and regulated by government forces. MacPherson began the conversation by framing the War on Drugs as a “major distraction.” “A drug is a substance,” MacPherson said, “A war on drugs is like a war on pens.” Of course, he was right. A war is fought against people, and the casualties of this war are accepted casualties in our society.

Dr. Bernard Le Foll’s conversation was by far the most interesting, as he touched on a topic near and dear to the hearts of many in the audience: cannabis. Coming from CAMH (Center for Addiction and Mental Health), Dr. Le Foll placed his discussion on how cannabis prohibition must begin with caution. While CAMH supports the Public Health model to substances, our drug policy needs to be based in scientific facts. This drew criticism from Emery, when it was suggested by Dr. Le Foll that cannabis would be more risky if it were left totally free of market regulations. As Dr. Le Foll continued his speech, advocating for scientific skepticism and caution, he drew more and more cries from a crowd that disagreed that cannabis carries risk.

Dr. Dan Werb from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, discussed the “heroic retreat” of drug policy enforcers and regulators. His discussion centered primarily around reframing the conversation on drug policy around how communities view their own needs, rather than by some government official. Notably, Dr. Werb pointed out something that would ring true for many who would be sitting on the panels that night: our scientists and expert panelists all in some ways benefitted from the War on Drugs. Whether it was because we stand in opposition or lobby for these policies to continue, our status in society and our role as researchers meant that we all had a hand in the till.

Denise Baldwin pointed out that our failed drug policy needed to be fixed as it disproportionately impacted people who society mostly marginalizes, both racially and economically. “Drug policy, frankly,” she paused, “is kind of racist.” Baldwin pointed out the huge health equity gaps in Canada for Aboriginal people, and encouraged the audience to read a new study, “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment”.  If we are to adopt a public health approach to drug policy we must first decolonize public health and ensure equity for First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status Indigenous peoples in Canada.  There were going to be limitations to a change in drug policy too; even if legalizing drugs might take the heat off of marginalized communities, it will not end the unequal distribution of power in our society. Sadly, as the panel moved away from important issues around colonialism, and the Canadian settler mentality, Baldwin was the only person to stay quiet. Her message, while noted, did not seem to carry as much weight as some of the speakers – the irony of the silence, not unnoticed.

Dr. Carl Hart opened the discussion by recognizing the importance of the conversations of the speakers, as well as acknowledging Marc Emery. Dr. Hart facilitated the ongoing discussion, providing critical commentary to some of the more interesting comments that were levied against the panel. He was quick to point out the limitations of science. Our scientific skepticism was important, but it meant that sometimes we were going to make mistakes, we might not move fast enough to fix a problem, and when the problem impacts millions of people annually, sometimes a less conservative approach might be important. On the other hand, moving too fast could also put lives at stake, and we needed to be reminded that our purpose is to help people, not hurt them.