Listen to youth when developing youth drug policy

Listen to youth when developing youth drug policy

The following article was initially presented as a discussion paper at First, Do Less Harm: The Future of Drug Policy in Canada on January 31st, 2017, a panel sponsored by The Canadian Harm Reduction Network and The University of Toronto Centre for Community Partnerships.

First, Do Less Harm: Protecting the Youth

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) is always working to reduce the potential harms of bad policy on young people by including youth voices and input in some of the bigger decisions happening in Canada. Under the guise of “protecting the youth,” we often create policies that do more harm and does little to actively protect young people. When looking at doing less harm, we have to consult the evidence.

Listening to Youth

In September, CSSDP organized a youth roundtable that focused on elements of the legalization task force discussion paper to show how we can do less harm, starting with cannabis.

CSSDP noticed that youth were not being consulted outside of the general public consultation and that stakeholder meetings focused more on organizations that work with youth, rather than youth themselves. To give youth a clear voice on upcoming cannabis legalization, CSSDP, with support from Lift and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, hosted a youth roundtable in September called Youth Speak: Cannabis Policy in the 21st Century, which was attended by Task Force member Catherine Zahn, a representative from the legalization secretariat, MP Vaughan, and MP Erskine-Smith. We reviewed the discussions and produced a report based on feedback from 21 diverse youth voices in Toronto, including peer youth workers who work with at-risk youth, medical cannabis patients, students, and those who work in the illegal and legal cannabis industries. The young people who participated were aged 18-29.

The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey shows that in 2015, self-reported alcohol use amongst grades 7-12 was over 45%, tobacco use was 34%, cannabis was at 22%, and each figure increase with age. The highest use of cannabis was among those between 20-24—with 26% using in the last year. These numbers could be even higher, as they don’t capture the many at-risk or homeless youth who may fall outside of what’s reported in the survey.

Criminalizing Young People

Prohibition has been constructed as a way to protect youth, but it really hasn’t done much to keep young people away from illegal drugs like cannabis; instead they have become one of the most criminalized populations for cannabis-related charges. The criminalization of youth has effects on their future in many ways, such as getting loans, housing, financial aid, and even employment. And we have found that a criminal approach to cannabis possession, production, and distribution causes more harm than the actions themselves. In fact, some youth describe criminal records as, “a gateway to longer prison sentences and the cycle of imprisonment.” Of course, this relates not just to cannabis, but to all drugs.

For example, youth talked about how age restrictions are not about when it’s safe to initiate use, but when we think young people can make reasonable choices. Setting age limits too high means one of our largest cannabis using populations is now outside the regulated system. High rates of use among young people are a key reason why youth felt the age limit should not be too high, and this recommendation was reflected in the Task Force recommendations.

One of the most predominant and recurring themes centered on the criminalization of young people: we must ensure we do not thinly veil restrictions that actually do more harm as “protecting youth.” When it comes to criminalizing youth, the key recommendation focused on youth offences that occur outside the regulated system. Like we see with underage alcohol access, cannabis access will happen outside of the regulated system even if it mirrors the drinking ages. For youth that use cannabis, it should not come with a criminal record. Youth recommended some kind of decriminalized/low penalty system like ticketing or community service, although there were some disagreements on what appropriate alternatives to criminal sanctions there could be. For example, ticketing could further disenfranchise the most vulnerable young people who can’t afford to pay, while community service may take at-risk youth away from jobs and school. The Task Force recommendations also reflected that simple possession of cannabis by youth should not be a criminal offence. Many also noted that although outside the scope of the task force, past non-violent criminal records should be expunged, particularly underscored by youth who worked with other at-risk and homeless youth, where the consequences are magnified.

Cannabis Education

Young people also expressed the need to have access to evidence-based but non-judgemental education about cannabis and other drug use. A good example is iMinds learning resources from BC, which focuses on increasing youth drug literacy. Most of the youth at the roundtable didn’t remember anything but abstinence-only education or anything specific about cannabis use in particular. Youth felt this may be because educators worry about being seen as “pro-drug” should they provide realistic drug education. Cannabis and other drug education needs to include harm reduction, and “protecting the youth” must include protecting those young people who do choose to use drugs. This should include information about things like driving under the influence without stigmatizing use itself. For example, we’ve done a good job changing the public opinion on drinking and driving, without stigmatizing alcohol use itself.

Although cannabis education is a big positive step towards harm reduction in a legalized framework, it is only the first of many topics to cover in the wider conversation on the future of drug use and drug education in Canada.

Education Models and Tool kits

CSSDP has been looking at education models from within Canada and other jurisdictions, such as ‘Cannabis Conversations’ from Washington State, as well at the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse’s Cannabis Education Toolkit. While these are a good starting point, we feel that the lack of inclusion of youth voices in both developing and testing these tool kits is problematic. For example, we found that often these tool kits overlook the nuances of cannabis use and overstate the scientific evidence, which could undermine the effectiveness of prevention efforts among youth, particularly those who are older, as they might have personal experiences that don’t align with these descriptors, resulting in fostering distrust. Some strengths might include the acknowledgment of medical use and pleasure as reasons people use cannabis, as well as different talking points for different age groups. Youth at the roundtable stressed the importance of education being developed with the input of youth and young people, including those who do and those who do not use cannabis, in order to test the curriculum and provide feedback.

Upcoming Cannabis Education and Research Campaign

Moving forward, CSSDP is beginning an education and research campaign that prioritizes youth input. We hope to stress the need for harm reduction in cannabis education and recognize that this is the first step in a much wider conversation around youth education and cannabis access. Access to age-appropriate materials that start in elementary school will be beneficial to youth, but these materials should be developed with the input of young people to really unpack what it means to ‘protect young people’ in this context. For the young people we worked with, this meant keeping the criminalization of youth, which arguably does the most harm, at the forefront of these conversations.

Collaboration Opportunities for Researchers and Educators

We’re seeking collaborators on this cannabis education campaign and hope that we can help develop meaningful tools to give young people access to the education they deserve. If you have questions or are interested in contributing, connect with us.

Below is the video from the First, Do Less Harm panel, moderated by Joe Fiorito and featuring panelists Patricia Erickson, Raffi Balian, Trevor Stratton, Eugene Oscapella, as well as CSSDP representative, Dessy Pavlova.

Dessy Pavlova

Dessy Pavlova


Dessy has been studying drug policy and the cannabis industry for over a decade. Dessy works with startups and small businesses to develop their brand and digital marketing strategies in and outside of the Canadian cannabis industry and focuses on teaching and sensible drug education.
Find out more.

With or without the blessing

With or without the blessing

Harm reduction workers celebrating their temporary agreement with local law enforcement. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Toronto opened the 1st pop-up safe injection site.

The city of Toronto has not ‘blessed’ the project. However, activists for the site are excited about it, and “hope authorities won’t shut them down” (Nasser, 2017).

For one of the underserved sectors of the Toronto community, the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance will open on Saturday. Harm reduction workers and activists, and advocates, have been making calls for something like this for some time (Rieti, 2017).
Three people have died, recently, due to overdoses (Glover, 2017). This is seen as a wakeup call by many (The Canadian Press, 2017). With these deaths, and with the ongoing protestations of harm reduction activists, they are taking these issues on for the community on their own.
These are unregulated pop-up safe injection sites. The exact site, was not given by harm reduction worker Matt Johnson in conversation with CBC News, to protect users and organizers (Nasser, 2017).
Johnson said, “We just can’t wait any longer.… With this many deaths we just can’t afford to.” The advocates for harm reduction consider the harm reduction sites sanctioned, or ‘blessed,’ by the city of Toronto.
Advocates for harm reduction have been making calls for the declaration of a public health emergency alongside immediate funding for the 24-hour care for substance users.

Many have praised the city sites. However, these are considered insufficient by the harm reduction advocates. “They were opened to deal with the overdose problem that we had — not the increase that we’re dealing with. So they can’t handle the overflow that we’re seeing now,” Johnson said, citing a rash of drug overdose deaths in the past month that prompted police to issue a public alert.”
Mayor John Tory met with John and other harm reduction advocates for reassurance that the city’s staff and police will not attempt to take down the pop-up harm reduction site and would permit the harm reduction group to stay there.
The assurance was not given to the activists. Chair of the board of health, Joe Mihevc, told CBC News that the city of Toronto has been working to develop more city-sanctioned sites, but that this takes time.
Harm reduction activists appear to have been opening up these in the light of the delays.



Glover, C. (2017, August 11). 3 dead in Durham region from drug overdoses, fentanyl suspected. Retrieved from

Nasser, S. (2017, August 11). Toronto’s 1st pop-up safe-injection site set to open without city’s blessing. Retrieved from

Rieti, J. (2017, August 11). Toronto harm reduction advocates pushing for pop-up safe-injection sites. Retrieved from

The Canadian Press. (2017, July 31). Spate of drug overdoses in Toronto wakeup call, experts say. Retrieved from  


Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen


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:


The New Alcohol Sales Policies will Increase Harm in Ontario

The New Alcohol Sales Policies will Increase Harm in Ontario

The current provincial government of Ontario is implementing a policy to sell alcohol in over 300 new outlets in Ontario over the next few years. This will largely include selling wine and beer in grocery stores. The plan is part of the liberal government’s intention to decrease ‘red-tape’ for the alcohol sector.

This blog does not advocate for criminalization or moral condemnation of alcohol use but an evidence-based view of how harm from alcohol can be reduced. The prohibition of alcohol, like the prohibition of drugs, would likely create more harm and violence than it prevents. Morality or religious-based arguments are less compelling than economic, public health, and safety concerns presented here in regards to maintaining the regulatory model in Canada.

The Facts on Alcohol

Alcohol has historically been the only legal psychoactive drug in Canada and also the most popular, with around 80 percent of adults having drank in the past year. It is likely that alcohol is your favorite psychoactive drug and the drug you have taken the most in your lifetime. It is by far the most widely consumed substance in human history and entrenched in most cultures.

Many drink without harming themselves or others and there is little negative impact. However, the legal status and social acceptability of alcohol are largely responsible for its disproportionate amount of drug related harm. Alcohol is a causal or co-causal factor in over 7 types of cancers, diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome, assaults, drunk driving deaths, homicides, sexual crimes, suicides, accidents, days taken off work and a variety of other public health problems. Harm reduction for alcohol is necessary because of its popularity and acceptability compared to all other mind altering drugs.

The new policies of increased alcohol availability and density of outlets and the further relaxation of the liquor control monopoly by the current Liberal government of Ontario goes against the evidence on how to best reduce alcohol harm. Canadian and international public health organizations have stated that increasing density and availability of alcohol increases consumption rates and related harms in the long term. The new alcohol sales policies will increase the human and economic cost of alcohol and should be protested by citizens and taxpayers as a shortsighted policy with real world consequences.

Profits and Costs of Privatization

Alcohol is not an ordinary commodity that should be dictated by standard economic market principles. Alcohol is a dependence-causing substance classified as a depressant that leads to many individual and population-level negative outcomes. It does not just harm individual drinkers. In multiple provincial surveys, one in three Canadians report having experienced harm in the past year as a result of someone else’s drinking. The magazine The Economist rankings show that alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK, ahead of tobacco and heroin, and causes the most damage to populations and the economy.

British Columbia has implemented partial privatization over the past 15 years and Alberta has been the only province to have fully privatized alcohol sales since 1993. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of a government monopoly is that since alcohol has many external costs dispersed to society, the tax revenue gained from alcohol can offset the damage by being partially directed to the justice and healthcare systems. It is estimated that the government of Alberta has lost $1.5 billion since privatization due to not maintaining prior public tax revenues. As well, privatization in Alberta and B.C. has also been correlated with increased rates of drinking and driving and per litre consumption.

Therefore, the capitalist profit motive shouldn’t function as it normally does. The government should not promote cigarette smoking because of the enormous cost to taxpayers, which sits at 17 billion dollars per year. Alcohol works on the same principle but there has not been a policy change or as much of a normative social shift against alcohol as there has been with smoking. Multiple policy initiatives have decreased smoking rates, such as raised prices, minimum pricing, bans in private and public spaces, less visibility and labelling on packages. Lowering prices and making cigarettes more available would increase smoking rates and acceptability. Some of the same logic and policy initiatives apply to alcohol.   

The social and economic costs of alcohol in Canada are substantial. Alcohol killed 4258 in Canada in 2002. In the most comprehensive study on alcohol harm in Canada to date, alcohol costs the country $14.6 billion annually. This comes from $4 billion in direct justice system costs, $3 billion in direct healthcare costs and $7 billion in indirect loss of production due to death, disability, and disease. Economic models do not include things such as emotional suffering or depression due to drinking. Surprisingly, those classified as non-risky or moderate drinkers account for at least half of total alcohol harm. Alcohol and tobacco cost the Canadian government over $31 billion dollars a year while all illicit drugs combined cost 8 billion annually.

Total yearly government revenue from the alcohol industry is roughly 5 billion dollars. Every dollar the government makes from alcohol, it spends nearly three on the harm created. While it may be not be on the mind of people when discussing economic growth, alcohol harm reduction strategies would make a significant positive net difference. The costs from the new Ontario alcohol policies will likely be seen in the decades to come.

Reducing the Harm of Alcohol

Alcohol is a factor in over 30 percent of all crime in Canada. All illegal drugs combined account for 5 percent of police reported crime. Drunk driving is the most common criminal offence in Canada. The pharmacological effects of alcohol intoxication leads to increased likelihood of aggression in people with a pre-existing personality disposition for violence. Posting police outside of entertainment districts at last call and limiting alcohol past certain hours has been shown to be an efficient way to decrease homicides and assaults.

Medical studies conclusively show alcohol intoxication, even in comparison to other substances, increases risky and impulsive decision-making and decreases the ability to properly assess dangerous situations. Alcohol is by far the most common drug used to facilitate date rape. It is estimated that alcohol is involved in 35-65 percent of all sexual assaults. Shaming the victim of a sexual crime for willful consumption of alcohol is a common narrative and a factor in low reporting and conviction rates. Drinking alcohol until intoxication is a significant risk factor for being violently or sexually victimized and for perpetrating a violent or sexual criminal offense. While only the individual perpetrator is responsible for their violent actions and no one anywhere deserves to be harmed, the data shows that alcohol as a risk factor for vulnerability of victimization should not be ignored.  

Another issue with privatizing alcohol sales is that private vendors are not as responsible dealing with underage buying. Once a profit motive is introduced, retail outlets rationally seek to sell as much as possible, and competitive economic pressures will inevitably lead to easier access for youth. Mystery shopper research shows that publicly owned alcohol outlets ID at much higher rates and turn back many more teenagers than convenience or grocery stores.

While many admire the ‘relaxed drinking culture’ of Europe, WHO Europe studies show that it is actually a public health epidemic. Europe spends over 130 billion dollars per year on alcohol harm. Evidence shows that a history of liberalized alcohol policy, which in turn creates a cycle of social acceptability and increased consumption, has led to the worst alcohol harms on Earth. At the global level, alcohol killed 3 million people in 2012, with Eastern Europe and Russia in particular being the regions with highest rates of death and disease. Alcohol is currently the 3rd leading preventable risk factor for death or lost years of life, significantly ahead of illegal drug use.

Consumption rates, the way people drink, harm and total cost to the economy are all affected by socio-economic and cultural factors. For example, majority Catholic countries drink significantly more than majority Muslim countries. Developed countries consume more than developing countries but unregulated alcohol consumption problems are higher in poorer nations. Men are 2 to 3 times more likely than women to drink in risky ways and consume more drinks on average. However, consumption by younger women aged 15-24 is currently increasing dramatically.

Alcohol and Public Health Policy

Policy greatly affects consumption and harm from alcohol and different policies are more effective than others. The WHO as well as many other Canadian and international health organizations have declared that limiting availability, decreasing density of outlets and maintaining existing government monopolies are the most effective ways to reduce consumption and the overall cost to Canadians. If the mandate for governments is to promote the public good and security, it should not be privatizing and actively promoting increased alcohol consumption.

Public opinion in Ontario shows that a slight majority are in favor of maintaining the current government liquor monopoly. The vast majority reported that it was currently easy and convenient to obtain alcohol when they wanted it. Surveys show that men, Caucasians, young people and heavy drinkers are more likely to favor liberalized alcohol policies. The demographics who most support liberalized alcohol policies may be the group who engages in the most harmful behavior. Women, visible minorities and older people are more likely to support the traditional Canadian system of government regulation.

The Liberal government of Ontario is prioritizing short-term profits at the expense of the overall health and well being of the province. Increasing the availability and density of alcohol will do long term damage to the economy and health of Canada. It is contrary to good evidence-based public health policy and is in violation of public trust.

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.

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 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


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:
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


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:
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


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:
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.

Leaders in Drug Policy: Introduction

Leaders in Drug Policy: Introduction

Politics is “context” created by individuals and structures within society, in both formal and informal institutions. Context is defined as, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” Drug policy, then, is more than just a set of laws, but the circumstances which shape those laws in our societies. Those circumstances often relate to some of the most sensitive issues – such as drugs and youth activism. Leaders in Drug Policy show the importance of discussing, understanding, and analyzing the impact of bad drug laws and the reasons for drug policy reform.

Leaders in Drug Policy

Drugs are seen as the loci of social degeneration; youth activists are seen as social degenerates.

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) examines drug policies through the eyes of youth, citing evidence and inspiring activism. CSSDP is made up of both youth activists interested in drug policy and young people interested in positive reform in society. From local chapters in universities to advisors to the executive committee, students operate the organization to advocate, demonstrate, and educate about sensible drug policy — drug policy based on compassion, evidence, and science, and the harm reduction model of drug policy reform.These students are Leaders in Drug Policy.

The youth and students that run CSSDP and the drug policy professionals, professors and researchers that inspire them provide context to the problem of prohibition. A minor contribution to the discussion about sensible drug policy, harm reduction, and alternative approaches to prohibition and drug law reform comes from conversations with relevant individuals, from the young activist to the expert professor.

My aim is to continue the conversation through interviews with Leaders in Drug Policy. Throughout the coming months, CSSDP will publish a series of interview articles outlining the thoughts, concerns and insights of board members, chapter members, and other leaders in Canadian drug policy. This series will provide context to the ongoing conversation, and insight of how CSSDP and it’s partners are moving policy forward, sensibly.

Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen

Board member

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Find out more.

Join our board of directors, fight the drug war!

Join our board of directors, fight the drug war!

Are you motivated to undo the harms done by the drug war and its policies?

We are looking for two passionate, driven youth and students join our board of directors! The duration of this appointment is until our Spring 2017 Annual General Meeting, at which point those interested in remaining on the board may choose to run for a full two-year term.

REQUIREMENTS – As a member of the board, you’ll help advance CSSDP’s objectives at the local, national, and international levels (see our About page for more information). Board members are required to:

  • Attend monthly board meetings
  • Participate in two of our four committees (Conference Planning; Outreach; Finance & Fundraising; and Special Projects and Political Advocacy)
  • When possible, contribute to the ongoing tasks of the organization as determined by the board and the committees
  • Maintain active involvement in their local CSSDP chapter, or start a chapter if there are none

On average, this involves a time commitment of 8-16 hours per month (2-4 hours per week). As opportunities arise, board members may also have the opportunity to represent CSSDP at conferences, make presentations to members of the government, attend drug policy meetings at the United Nations, and more.

ELIGIBILITY – You must meet at least two of the following criteria:

  • Be a youth, defined as under the age of 30
  • Be a  currently registered student
  • Be an active participant in a chapter or have attended a national conference and annual general meeting in the past year

TO APPLY – Send an email to CSSDP Co-Chair Gonzo Nieto ( describing who you are, why you want to join the board, any relevant experience you might have (including involvement with a CSSDP chapter), etc. as well as a CV. Your application will only be viewed by current board members and disposed of after the new board members have been appointed. Please include “Interim Board Application” in the email title.

DEADLINE – 11:59 PM on Friday, November 18, 2016. Please make sure to submit your application before this time.

If you are unsure about your eligibility or have any other questions you’d like us to answer before submitting an application, please send an email to CSSDP Co-Chair Gonzo Nieto (

International Overdose Awareness Day 2016

International Overdose Awareness Day 2016

August 31st marked the 15th annual International Overdose Awareness Day. With events held around the globe, people living within a myriad of different drug policy frameworks put out a unified message: our friends and family are dying preventable deaths, and not enough is being done to protect our loved ones. Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have a progressive government that has already begun making changes to incorporate harm reduction measures into our public health policies, but it’s important to also recognize the work that there is still to be done in terms of broadening public access to key services.

A few examples of the effective harm reduction measures we have in Canada are our needle exchange programs and safe injection sites, such as Insite in Vancouver, which allow drug users and addicts to exchange their dirty needles for clean ones (keeping dirty needles off the streets) and even allows them to inject their drugs in a clinical, supervised setting as opposed to consuming their drugs in public spaces, or alone where they would be at an increased risk of overdose-related death. While supervised injection sites like Insite have been successfully serving communities in Canada since 2003, there are still barriers that stand in the way of public health.

One such obstacle is Bill-C2, the ironically-named Respect for Communities Act, which makes it next to impossible to open safe injection sites. Even the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, has expressed opposition to safe injection sites despite their demonstrated benefits from the sites that do exist in Canada. When the leader of our country’s capital has a misinformed opinion on a pressing social issue, it impedes progress and hurts the better interest of the public.

While he issued a letter addressing our concerns, acknowledging that every 11 days we lose a member of our Ottawa community to a preventable, drug-related overdose, he has yet to change his views on safe injection sites, despite staggering evidence that safe injection lowers the incidence of overdose death and blood-borne disease. Safe Injection Sites have been shown to benefit entire communities, reducing drug-related crime and syringe sharing, as well as providing the support many drug users need to enter drug treatment programs and other health services.

Another big win for harm reduction is that Canada recently dropped the requirement for a prescription to obtain naloxone, rendering it available for free over the counter. Naloxone is a crucial factor in fighting the opioid crisis we are currently facing in Canada, as it works similarly to an Epipen but rather than stopping anaphylaxis, it can reverse an opiate-related overdose. It can literally stop an overdose in its tracks. With such an imperative, life-saving drug available to the public for free it’s hard to understand why the number of overdose deaths continues to rise, with a 31% increase in BC between 2014 and 2015.

The problem lies in accessibility to the public, with insufficient exposure for this tremendously important drug. People simply are not aware that they can walk into a pharmacy and ask for naloxone. While the government isn’t doing much in the way of outreach to at-risk drug users, luckily we have plenty of community-based naloxone training and things like Peer Overdose Prevention programs to help educate people on the benefits of harm reduction.

Overdose Awareness Day Events in Canada

Ottawa Event

The event that was held in Ottawa was truly an emotionally moving experience. An art installation served as a visual representation of the people we’ve lost within the Ottawa community, with empty shoes standing in the place of loved ones lost to preventable overdose deaths. There were brief descriptions sitting next to the empty shoes, including the age of the deceased and who they were to someone, to emphasize that drug users are not the ‘degenerates’ our society casts them as—they are our grandmothers, best friends, parents, children, brothers, sisters, and more.


Community members from diverse backgrounds were invited to speak on the topic at the foot of the Human Rights Monument in front of City Hall to illustrate a well-rounded image of the role of overdose in the wider Ottawa area and our role in creating change to stop it. From first responders listing brutal statistics, to addicts themselves sharing raw, personal stories, a very clear message was painted: our friends and family members are dying and the appropriate measures have yet to be taken to stop these preventable deaths.

Heather D'Alessio

Heather D'Alessio

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.


The Toronto event for International Overdose Awareness Day took place at a public health unit known as The Works. The center provides harm reduction equipment and services to drug users such as needle exchange and drop-in visits with nurses. The Works is also one of the proposed locations for supervised injection sites in Toronto. I was invited to the event by a friend who works for the Inner City Health Team which offers harm reduction services to homeless men.

img_1900The event celebrated the fatal overdose prevention drug called naloxone and individuals who had saved people’s’ lives by administering it during an overdose. These people were referred to as rescuers and were given a certificate of recognition for saving someone’s life. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, reverses the effects of opioid overdose. In Ontario, it is now carried by nurses and can be acquired in local pharmacies without a prescription.

The Works also had a memorial room with the pictures of people who had passed away from overdose, with messages written by their loved ones. It is vital to remember that real people die from drug use. The loss of life is not less significant because they used drugs. More effective policy could decrease drug related harm significantly. Needle exchange, widespread naloxone training and injection sites are all policies that decrease overdose deaths and disease transmission anywhere they are implemented. The criminalization of illicit drugs, heroin in particular, allow for impure and dangerous substances.

Kyle Lumsden

Kyle Lumsden

A 4th year University of Toronto undergrad majoring in political science and sociology, Kyle 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 a year prior to joining the national board.

Cannabis to Marihuana: What’s In a Name?

Cannabis to Marihuana: What’s In a Name?

How did we go from using the term cannabis to marihuana, and back again? In August, the Federal Government of Canada introduced the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations. The ACMPR is an update to previous legislation that was found to be in violation of Canadians’ right to reasonable access to cannabis for medical purposes (Allard v. Canada, 2016). This new legislation updated the antiquated language the government had previously been using. The previous framework, Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), used the term ‘marihuana’ instead of the plant’s actual name: cannabis.

What’s in a name: Cannabis to Marijuana

The term cannabis originated in Latin and Greek etymology and was first used by the Scythians in reference to the plant as early as the second century B.C.E. The Scythians are credited with spreading use of the plant through the Middle East and into Europe, where it would eventually receive its scientific classification from botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753: cannabis sativa. Prior to the 1900s, the word cannabis was well-known and found on the ingredient list of medications for common ailments such as cough medicines and sleep aids. In common language, ‘marijuana’ replaced the original term. Marijuana is a term with somewhat different roots.

Harry Anslinger, the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, is responsible for popularizing the term marijuana/marihuana. According to Martin Lee’s latest book Smoke Signals, the term marijuana/marihuana can be traced back to the early 1930s when it appeared in a campaign aimed at smearing Mexican migrants and cannabis, their substance of choice.

“By stigmatizing marijuana and the ‘foreigners’ who smoked it . . . [the U.S. government] succeeded in exacerbating anti-Mexican sentiment during the Great Depression, when many Anglos felt they were competing with brown-skinned migrants for scarce jobs . . . Anslinger disclosed in 1936 that 50 percent of violent crimes committed in districts occupied by ‘Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negros may be traced to the use of marihuana’ . . . Anslinger brandished the non-English term like a truncheon to emphasize the weed’s connection to alien elements that crept over the Mexican border into the United States.” (p. 51)

Cannabis and the individuals who used it were painted as blemishes on society.

The Racist Roots

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (United States) was passed and the term, steeped in racism, was written into law. Canada shares a similar history of drug prohibition: Cannabis was added to the Confidential Restricted List in 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill and 1937 marked the first arrest for cannabis that occurred in Canada. It’s no secret that a disproportionate number of minorities have been targeted by the War on Drugs. In Canada, Blacks and Aboriginals make up a significant portion of the prison population while making up a much smaller proportion of the general population, however, they are disproportionately arrested for cannabis-related crimes when compared to whites, despite comparable rates of use.

Bringing Science Back

Reintegration of cannabis’s scientific name into common and political discourse represents a change in attitude towards the substance, both publicly and politically. The Federal Government’s decision to replace the ignorant term marijuana is a step towards more inclusive, academic, and scientific policies. The words we choose to use often reflect our beliefs and biases, so let’s hope this signals a shift in the government’s approach and perspective on one of the country’s most widely consumed drugs.

With science being re-integrated into drug policy, we hope our government values evidence and will incorporate what young people have to say about cannabis legalization into upcoming laws – and realize that cannabis is just the beginning for harm reduction and sensible drug policy in Canada. Don’t forget to sign our petition to stop the continued criminalization of dispensary workers in Toronto!

For more information

Khenti, A. (2013). The Canadian War on Drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians. The International Journal on Drug Policy, 25(2), 190-195.

Lee, M. A. (2013). Smoke Signals


Michelle Theissen

Michelle Theissen

Vice Chair

An Honours graduate with a Psychology B.A. from the University of British Columbia, Michelle will begin her Masters in Clinical Psychology in fall 2016, continuing her research examining the motivations and outcomes of recreational and therapeutic use of cannabis and psychedelics.
Find out more.

Megan L. Stager

CSSDP Member

Megan is a psychology student at the University of British Columbia, currently in the final year of her B.A. Hons. Her research interests include legal psychology, morality, drug policy, and well-being. In her spare time, Megan is involved in knowledge dissemination and serves as Treasurer of the Okanagan chapter of the CSSDP.

Youth Report on Cannabis Legalization

Youth Report on Cannabis Legalization

Together with the support of Lift and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), CSSDP hosted a youth roundtable in Toronto on September 7, 2016, providing a platform for young people to contribute input to the Task Force for Marijuana Regulation and Legalization on what sensible drug policy should look like. Today, we’re proud to report the findings of “Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century.”

Over 21 youth aged 18-29 years old, with diverse backgrounds both within and outside of the current cannabis industry, came together to discuss and provide insights to what the end of prohibition should look like. We broke up into groups to examine and unpack four key topics that affect youth and produced ten main recommendations from our discussions which will be officially presented to the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation this Friday September 23, 2016, by our Strategic Advisors and past board members, Jenna Valleriani and Nazlee Maghsoudi. One of our most important findings? Attendees reinforced the idea that science-based, factual education and harm reduction awareness is the most effective way to “protect youth”. From what we’ve heard, it sounds like youth know sensible drug policy, but will our politicians listen?

Here are the core recommendations from the outcome document:

  1. Age restrictions around cannabis access should be as low as possible, with the recommendation of not exceeding legal drinking ages across provinces.
  2. Medical access to cannabis should remain a separate system without age restrictions, but should require physician support.
  3. Youth offenses outside the regulated system should be decriminalized. Criminal sanctions should be replaced with alternatives such as mandatory education, fines, and/or community service.
  4. Past youth criminal records for simple possession and sale of cannabis should be expunged.
  5. Cannabis education should prioritize the development of youth’s “cannabis literacy” by including evidence-based assessment of risks, harm reduction principles, and not passing judgment on use.
  6. Cannabis education should start as early as possible with age-appropriate content, be created with the input of youth and young people, including those who use cannabis, and delivered by a trained facilitator or peer.
  7. Home cultivation of cannabis should be permitted under the new regulatory regime.
  8. Cannabis should not be distributed alongside alcohol, as this would likely exacerbate public health concerns associated with polydrug use.
  9. Distribution of cannabis should include the provision of cannabis education to patrons
  10. People with past non-violent cannabis-related charges should be permitted to participate in, and benefit from, the new legal market for cannabis.

Read the full report here and tell us what you think.

We want to extend special thanks to Dr. Catherine Zahn from the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation, Daphne Jurgens, the Senior Advisor for The Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Secretariat, as well as the Honourable MP Adam Vaughan and Honourable MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith for joining us in discussing upcoming laws that disproportionately affect youth and for giving young people a chance to be heard. Additionally, we could not have done it without the generous support of Lift and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy for their assistance with content and facilitation.

You can see the press release on our findings here. Make sure to check out our other blogs on cannabis legalization and please sign our petition to the City of Toronto to stop criminalizing dispensary workers.

Jenna Valleriani

Jenna Valleriani


A doctoral candidate in Sociology and the Collaborative Addiction Studies at the University of Toronto, Jenna was on the CSSDP board of directors from November 2013, acted as Conference Chair for CSSDP's 2015 conference, was CSSDP representative on the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition steering committee, and volunteers with NORML Canada. Find out more.

Dessy Pavlova

Dessy Pavlova


Dessy has been studying drug policy and the cannabis industry for over a decade. Dessy works with startups and small businesses to develop their brand and digital marketing strategies in and outside of the Canadian cannabis industry and focuses on teaching and sensible drug education.
Find out more.

Introduction to the Harm Reduction Model

Introduction to the Harm Reduction Model

Harm reduction models are misunderstood by many and unknown to others. The harm reduction model is in opposition, by implication of organizational structure, design, and outcomes, to punitive approaches or the zero tolerance model.

Zero tolerance models intend to punish those that use substances by making an example of offenders. Harm reduction models respect drug users and work for social justice linked to human rights (Harm Reduction International, 2016; Harm Reduction Coalition, n.d.). Harm reduction implies implementing safety measures for all psychoactive drugs including controlled drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs.

In this way, the zero tolerance and the harm reduction models are philosophies about drug use, which implies drug policy, too. The philosophies as theory. The policies as practice. Harm reduction philosophies accept the inevitability of drugs in society. Their use and abuse.

Harm reduction philosophies emphasize individual substance users, communities, and policies in a singular framework. It contrasts with the zero tolerance approach, where the unification is punishment of offenders divided into four big consequences for youth, for one instance of drug use, possession, trafficking, or in reality, simply being caught.

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says, “Harm reduction is any program or policy designed to reduce drug-related harm without requiring the cessation of drug use” (Erickson et al, 2002).

Rodney Skager of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the big four consequences for youth within the zero tolerance philosophy are “exclusion from extracurricular activities, transfer to another school, suspension, and expulsion…” (Skager, 2016). Skager claims zero tolerance approaches worsen the issue (Ibid.). CAMH concluded harm reduction should be implemented with “other proven successful interventions for those with substance use problems” (Erickson et al, 2002).

The main divide between the harm reduction model and zero tolerance model, philosophies, or strategies are the emphases on harm and punishment. The former focuses on the minimization of harm to individuals and communities through respect for persons and rights. The latter focuses on punishment for drug users to punish the individual drug user and set an example for others.

To conclude, Bill C-2 An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Respect for Communities Act) (2015) describes the full support of the Canadian Medical Association for the harm reduction strategies with the “aim to reduce mortality and morbidity” in spite of “continued exposure to a potentially harmful substance,” especially with addiction defined as “an illness” and that “harm reduction is clinically mandated” as an “ethical method of care and treatment” (Canadian Medical Association, 2015). Although this bill has limited harm reduction by making criteria for applicants and limited exemptions for new clinics, we’re excited that more supervised injection clinics are slowly opening in key cities around Canada, that prescription heroin was just approved as a new evidence-based harm reduction strategy, and that there is opportunity for CSSDP to work together with our local communities and politicians towards harm reduction and to raise awareness about what we can do to help!

Scott Jacobsen

Scott Jacobsen

Board member

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Find out more.

Legalizing Cannabis: Lessons for Canada

Legalizing Cannabis: Lessons for Canada

Canada has set a deadline for legalizing cannabis. By spring 2017, the substance will be available for recreational use. During the summer, the Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, on behalf of the Liberal government, unveiled the Task Force for Marijuana Legalization. The Task Force will be responsible for considering all factors that affect the process. Taking into account the opinions of experts, the Task Force will evaluate factors like addiction, youth, health, and more importantly, new laws and international treaties.

Everything looks ready to start pushing the process forward. But, until then, there is a long way to go and a lot of things that should be implemented first. What people usually forget, though, is that until it’s legalized, marijuana is still illegal. And decriminalization? Unlikely.

Lessons Learned on Legalizing Cannabis

Of course, Canada is not the first country, and hopefully not the last, to go through the process of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. There are a few countries around the world that Canada can look up to when it comes to cannabis. For instance, five US states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC), Portugal, and Netherlands have legalized the substance, at least partially. This infographic from OMQ Law is focused on laws and policies of these countries. Their experience can serve as a useful guide for Canada and its new drug policies.

Let’s take a look at the comparison of laws and practices in the US, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

A Story of Overdose

A Story of Overdose

When I was 16, I overdosed on drugs. I wasn’t an underage youth taking illegal drugs from unsafe street sources without the appropriate knowledge, but a new and confused chronic pain patient looking for relief from the only easily accessible medication I had access to – Advil. My experience, although a far cry from the overdose crises throughout Canada and the US, especially considering the current fentanyl epidemic, is intertwined with how we view and handle drug abuse, how our medical system inadvertently creates addiction, and how we can better support those who need and want to use drugs.

12 years ago, I was paralyzed from my ribs-down after a botched back operation for scoliosis. In the hospital, I was given morphine, but the side effects were greater than the pain. I was prescribed a few pills, but really didn’t find them effective. When I was discharged 6 months later, there was very little support for the chronic pain that started slowly and silently in the months that followed. Pain became a torrential downpour on my body – from nerve pain down my legs, to spasms up my spine, to chronic migraines. As a teenager, I didn’t know how to relieve the pain – maybe half a bottle of Advil over the period of 24 hours would help? I was carted to the hospital by ambulance, and told I was put on the list for a liver transplant. I had overdosed.

Clearly, I didn’t die. I also found a solution for my chronic pain that has limited negative side effects, and from which there has never been a lethal overdose – medical cannabis. Fortunately, cannabis is a medical solution for a lot of patients – but it’s not for everyone. Considering fentanyl is now prescribed for the multi-layered and sometimes simply excruciating full-body pain I suffer from on a daily basis, I know how lucky I am to have found relief in a substance that works for me. Not everyone is so lucky, and that’s why the cannabis conversation is only the beginning. Often, addiction and eventual overdose starts from a medical prescription, and escalates to sources only available through prohibition. Other times, it’s about not knowing the effects of a drug, or not knowing it’s purity, and not having access to those educational resources. The point is not to judge and criminalize those that use drugs, but to help through our school and medical systems. Just say know, and remember that evidence-based information is the best prevention of overdoses.

As a youth that nearly lost her life due to improper drug knowledge, limited support, and minimal understanding of drug effects, I know first hand how important it is to be heard on how drug and health policies effect youth – if only to reduce harm. CSSDP is co-hosting Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century to help give youth a voice on cannabis in particular – but the conversation only begins with cannabis. Through open dialogue and debate we hope to raise awareness about overdoses, about addiction, and about sensible drug policy. What’s next for drug policy in Canada after cannabis legalization? Only time will tell, but at least we’re taking the steps towards change, talking about drugs and drug policy with our parents, professors, politicians and peers, becoming aware of the social impacts of criminalizing drug users under prohibition, and making life-saving solutions like naloxone readily available.

This International Overdose Awareness Day, let’s support both those who choose to and those who need to use drugs with knowledge and understanding, provide youth with the appropriate education and tools to make informed decisions, and remember those who overdosed and passed away, and the lives that are impacted every day.

Dessy Pavlova

Dessy Pavlova


Dessy has been studying drug policy and the cannabis industry for over a decade. Dessy works with startups and small businesses to develop their brand and digital marketing strategies in and outside of the Canadian cannabis industry and focuses on teaching and sensible drug education.
Find out more.

Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century

Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century

With cannabis legalization promised in 2017, youth voices on drug policy have never been so loud.

It’s time for students and youth to have their say about cannabis legalization and upcoming drug policy at “Youth Speak: Cannabis Legalization in the 21st Century,” a forum hosted by Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and sponsored by Lift on September 7th, 2016 at the Centre for Social Innovation. We will be discussing 4 primary topics at this legalization workshop:

  1. Age Restrictions
  2. The Criminalization of Youth
  3. Prevention and Education
  4. Production, Distribution and Access Restrictions

The purpose of this forum is to amplify student and youth voices. Our first youth round table on cannabis legalization will start by covering the history of cannabis in Canada and the trajectory that resulted in prohibition. After examining the evidence, attendees will have the opportunity to give feedback on several topics pertaining to cannabis legalization. The workshop will be hosted for youth by youth, and we encourage  those interested to get involved! With the presence of local politicians, Dr. Catherine Zahn from the Legalization Task Force, and MP Erksine-Smith, this is an opportunity to be heard and create change towards more sensible drug policy.

Check out the Lift Cannabis blog on the event here, share our flyer, and join the conversation on twitter @CSSDP. Also, contact for more information or to get a personal invite to the event. Meanwhile, sign our petition!

Position Statement: Stop Raiding Dispensaries!

Position Statement: Stop Raiding Dispensaries!

Dispensaries in Canada continue to fill a void in access to medical cannabis, engaging in this act of civil disobedience for almost 20 years. On Wednesday, August 10th, Toronto police conducted a continuation of the Project Claudia raids on several more dispensaries, in addition to the dispensaries raided last week. Both the TPS and the City of Toronto have other means at their disposal for solving the problems posed by storefront dispensaries that does not include arresting otherwise law abiding Toronto citizens. The rapid expansion of dispensaries in Canada is an indication that Canadians in general are hopeful for regulated, retail access under a legalized regime and that many medical patients are in agreement.

Why are we criminalizing dispensary workers?

Particularly, CSSDP is concerned for the many young people who have been arrested, and will likely have criminal records for the rest of their lives in the wake of Project Claudia. The raids the Toronto Police have engaged in disproportionately punish entry-level retail workers. Cannabis prohibition already affects youth disproportionately in Canada. This demographic has some of the highest rates of arrests for cannabis related offences. Criminal charges have long lasting consequences on travel, employment opportunities, and family relationships. Further, with continued issues around access to medical cannabis, particularly for youth under the age of 25, these raids put many users who rely on dispensaries for medical access at greater risk, The new Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) defends the continued criminalization of storefront dispensaries with the fact that the product is unregulated. No other justifications are given for this state of affairs. If the only potential harms of storefront dispensaries are a lack of regulations, then it seems more appropriate to regulate them rather than allow a state of affairs to persist that may cause unnecessary harm. Cannabis is safer than other regulated substances like alcohol. It’s time to take this fact seriously.

Arrests aren’t the answer

CSSDP supports regulated access to cannabis for personal use, and applauds the Liberal government for this monumental step forward in their move to legalize cannabis, and to allow personal cultivation under the ACMPR. However, we urge the Toronto Police to stop raiding storefront dispensaries. Simply arresting those involved with will lead to an exclusive industry and a thriving illicit underground economy post-legalization. “The City of Toronto are in a unique position to set themselves up as one of the most important stakeholders as legalization unfolds,” says CSSDP Vice-Chair, Dessy Pavlova, “and could build a template that would allow dispensaries to be included in future regulations, following places such as Victoria and Vancouver in B.C.” CSSDP is hopeful for the development of an inclusive industry that represents a variety of voices, including those who have been working in this industry and providing medical access and products for decades in Canada.

Canada After Cannabis: What’s Next for Drug Policy Reform?

Canada After Cannabis: What’s Next for Drug Policy Reform?

For better or for worse, cannabis legalization is on its way. The recent Project Claudia raids in Toronto and the ongoing criminalization of possession for small amounts of cannabis throughout Canada, in spite of the government’s promise to legalize in spring 2017, has many criticizing the government’s first steps.

In some ways, our institution’s attitudes towards Cannabis are more harsh now than before our government’s legalization promise. However, international reactions remain generally positive. Perhaps this positivity has something to do with Canada’s potential to establish a more open market than the currently limited legalization models used in the United States, where federal law limits cannabis-based businesses from using banking systems. Regardless of the outcome, the ongoing legalization debate could set a useful precedent for other medicines, many plants among them, that are difficult to access because of their legal status. Psilocybin, Ayahuasca, LSD, and MDMA have all been shown to have a positive impact on well-being in various scientific studies. Some correlational studies even find positive relationships between mental health and psychedelic use in populations that use these substances for non-medicinal purposes (see here and here). Using the building momentum of cannabis legalization, the psychedelic therapy movement might be especially well-positioned to continue to change attitudes and correct the long-standing bureaucratic barriers to optimal healthcare that cannabis legalization activists have long been trying to overcome.

Psilocybin and alternative healthcare

Consider this 2011 pilot study that was performed at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. The purpose: to evaluate the potential of psilocybin in treating end-of-life anxiety experienced by terminal cancer patients. The results showed that administering psilocybin in conjunction with ongoing psychotherapy sessions reduced symptoms of anxiety, and elevations in mood lasted 6 months or longer. Compare these results to a study from 2008 that examined both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the common antidepressant Sertraline as two distinct treatment methods for end-of-life anxiety. It was found that patients treated with CBT – which focuses on intervening in and changing the perceptions that are characteristic of anxiety or depression – did not respond well to CBT if they had a poor perception of their own health. This presents an obvious potential difficulty for using this method with someone diagnosed with terminal cancer. The group that was treated with Sertraline in this study showed greater reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to the CBT group, but no improvement was found after discontinuation of the medication. This indicates that Sertraline might best be considered a palliative (symptom-focused) treatment but not a curative (cause-focused) treatment for end-of-life anxiety. Given that psilocybin resulted in alleviation of anxiety for extended periods after only a single exposure to a therapeutic dose, there is reason to believe that it is a curative medication when used alongside therapy.

More recently, psilocybin has been used to treat depression with positive results, and a few small neuroimaging studies, including one with LSD published just this year, have gained much attention for the apparent capacity that psychedelics have to “shut off” a major network in the brain associated with conditions such as depression and anxiety. Commonly referred to as the Default Mode Network, this regular set of neuronal interactions is responsible for functions such as past and future thinking and self reference. The Default Mode Network is absent in infancy and develops over the course of childhood and into early adulthood. In the case of certain mental illnesses, the Default Mode Network becomes ‘entrenched’ in the brain and it can become progressively more difficult for the brain to break out of this network and visit other network spaces in the brain. This is detrimental because the Default Mode Network is only good for certain sorts of tasks, and cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch between different task relevant brain networks when needed is crucial to well-being and optimal functioning. As anyone with depression can tell you, it is very difficult to solve the multitude of life’s problems exclusively by ruminating on them. The general idea is that psychedelics disrupt entrenched networks of activity, and the corresponding patterns of thought and behaviour that go with them. This allows a person to reconstruct these patterns of thought and behaviour by enabling conditions in the brain where new network pathways can be explored and eventually utilized beyond the psychedelic experiece. Given these results and the additional benefits of needing to take the medication only several times instead of on a daily basis basis – as is needed with more or less all psychiatric medications – it seems uncontroversial to claim that in exploring psychedelics, we are exploring viable and potentially curative medications for mental health. This means that psychedelic medications can fundamentally change the current paradigm of prescribing psychiatric medication, which is beneficial not only to those in need of treatment, but to society as a whole.

The cost of prescription healthcare

In 2011, Stats Canada reported that the second most costly component of healthcare spending was on prescription medications, accounting for 14% of overall spending at around $29 billion dollars. Among youth (ages 16-24), the leading classes of prescription medications were for ADHD, depression, and contraception. Among people age 25-79, antidepressants were the leading prescription medication amongst women, and at 45, usage of antidepressants peaked for both sexes (17% among women and 8% among men). Given the fact that psychedelic medication is required only several times in conjunction with psychotherapy in order to treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, and perhaps other mental illnesses, this could amount to a difference of millions, if not billions of dollars saved annually in the healthcare system. It can also reduce some of the harms associated with some psychiatric medications, such as long term health complications and the possibility of addictions. Benzodiazepines are prescribed for anxiety disorders, yet are quite addictive and overdoses are not uncommon. Stimulant medications – which are often unquestioningly prescribed to children for ADHD – are also highly addictive and can damage major organs, as well as cause psychotic symptoms if used long term. Most importantly though, we may be able to develop treatments more effective at combatting the personal and social costs associated with the difficulties of mental illness, such as increasing the capacity people have to connect with their communities. Support networks are very important in how mental illness plays out and unfortunately they can be quite difficult to maintain for someone who is struggling with depression, anxiety or psychosis for years on end. At a wider scale, we can reduce the costs associated with people being unable to motivate themselves to work or find work and facilitate a more productive and positive culture. If psychiatry was really accomplishing its goals in treating the suffering and pathologies of the individual, this would be the inevitable end result. However, psychiatry is currently not having these maximally prosocial effects on society. It can only achieve this if the field becomes engaged in caring more about effective treatments than about the arbitrary cautions and conservatism that ground the general apprehension to researching psychedelic compounds. In fact, the methods and medications of psychiatry up until this point are in no small part responsible for prescription drug abuse, and the opioid overdose epidemic involving fentanyl. It’s time to explore alternative options!

Psychedelics and harm reduction

All documented clinical trials so far have shown MDMA, LSD and psilocybin to be safe when administered in a therapeutic setting. While there are certainly risks to consider, they are nowhere near extreme enough to justify the barriers to research that are only now beginning to be dismantled. When weighing the potential risks against the possible benefits, it becomes fairly apparent why it is imperative to focus on psychedelic medicines as a major research project. Some, like Charlotte Walsh, even argue on the grounds of human rights and cognitive liberty that psychedelics should be available to any and all who feel inclined to use them. It is certainly arguable that the regulated availability of psychedelics could have a more positive effect on society than tobacco and alcohol. Incidentally, psilocybin has even been shown to be successful in treating nicotine addiction in a small pilot study, while LSD was identified as being helpful for alcoholism since the very beginning of psychedelic research, back in the 1950s. Recreational psychedelics might therefore be able to prevent the harms associated with the use of alcohol and tobacco and prevent addictions before they manifest. As is often the case when it comes to psychedelic plants, Terence Mckenna said it best:

 “The pro-psychedelic plant position is clearly an anti-drug position. Drug dependencies are the result of habitual, unexamined and obsessive behavior; these are precisely the tendencies in our psychological make-up that the psychedelics mitigate.”

Psychedelics and mental health

Though there have been major advancements in understanding mental health and arriving at evidence-based treatments, there are still many populations for whom we do not have adequate care. This includes victims of sexual assault, veterans, people with addictions, anxiety, and treatment resistant depression. The World Health Organization predicts that depression alone will become the second leading cause of disability in the world by 2020, second only to heart disease. Even though 80% of people treated for depression respond well to treatment, depression is still on par with smoking as a predictor of mortality, so undeniably there is much work to do in arriving at effective treatments. The percentage of Canadians who agreed that they are getting the best treatment for depression is only 28%, with 45% saying that they somewhat agree that they are getting the right treatment. This statistic shows an unsurprising lack of faith in mental health treatments. I would go so far as to say that this lack of faith is quite justified  – until researchers begin to seriously look into psychedelics as a medicine with potential to treat the underlying causes rather than the symptoms of mental illness. As long as researchers are prevented from accessing psychedelic medications through unnecessarily restrictive drug scheduling policies that don’t accurately reflect the nature of these compounds, the government is posing a direct barrier to the well-being of its citizens that is not only unjustified, but directly harmful.

Researching better healthcare

The suppression of research into psychedelic compounds has been compared to the suppression of research into astronomy by the Catholic church after the invention of the telescope. Such a comparison should not be taken lightly. We have at our disposal a profound tool for healing and for scientific inquiry into the mind, and yet there are immense barriers for researchers to access psychedelic plants and compounds; whether they be sheer cost (David Nutt was quoted the equivalent of $1,710 Canadian for a single dose of psilocybin) or the endless bureaucratic requirements needed to deal with a highly controlled substance. While the legalization of cannabis is an important step forward, it’s certainly not the end. However, it can set an important precedent and its legalization can perhaps turn cannabis into a gateway drug of an unexpected kind; a gateway to truly effective healthcare.

Daniel Greig

Daniel Greig

A student of Cognitive Science and Bioethics at the University of Toronto, Daniel researches psychedelic compounds and their implications for mental health treatments, consciousness and the development of wisdom, and organizes events for the Cognitive Science Students Union, the Buddhism and Psychology Union, and CSSDP Toronto. Find out more.

Support. Don’t Punish: Contact Your MPP

Support. Don’t Punish: Contact Your MPP

Write your MPP to tell them why Support. Don’t Punish. is important! You can download our printable PDF or doc email templates, or copy and paste the email below. Find your MPP and help them understand the youth voice and sensible drug policy!

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Dear ______________ ,

As one of your constituents in the _________________ riding, I am writing to talk about the international Support. Don’t Punish. campaign. Although the global day of action was on June 26th, the impact of the Support. Don’t Punish. campaign effects our society every day, throughout Canada. I call on you to support better drug policies that prioritize health and human rights. We need our MP’s like you to promote drug policy reform and help change laws and policies that impede access to harm reduction interventions. This is what Support. Don’t Punish. is all about, and there’s potential to create actual change in drug policy – with your help.

Here is a brief list of issues that we feel are in need of immediate attention:

  • The continued prohibition of cannabis has an incredibly negative effect on society, and especially youth. Our government promised legalization, but we keep seeing the effects of criminalizing users.
    See CSSDP’s press release here:
  • Fentanyl, extremely potent opioid, has dramatically increased overdose deaths. Making lifesaving medication like naloxone more accessible and allowing for testing the purity level of street drugs can help end avoidable and preventable deaths.
    See the HIV Network and CDPC policy brief here:
  • Supervised consumption services are health services that provide a safe, hygienic environment where people can use pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff. Safe Injection Sites, essential to limiting the effects of problematic drug use, are extremely difficult to open because of Bill C2, the Respect for Communities Act.
    See the CDPC publication here:

Problematic drug use in our society is primarily a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Drug policy should be focused on human rights, harm reduction and scientific evidence. Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy is working on local and national levels to draw attention to the problems with our current drug laws, and especially their impact on students and youth, like me.

If you could please respond with your opinions on drug policy in general, the effects of prohibition and your views on safe injection sites, that would be a really useful and appreciated way to start a discussion on how we can help our society move towards more sensible drug policies that help those that use drugs in problematic ways and offer sensible solutions for society that ensure education, harm reduction and support are accessible for all drug users.

Your Name Here


Don’t forget to upload your Support. Don’t Punish. photos for the Interactive Photo Project!

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.

CSSDP relies on our donors to operate and create change on local, national and international levels. Please consider donating, or get involved by starting or joining a chapter near you!

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.

Emploi d’été étudiant – Organisation communautaire (français)

Nombre de postes ouverts : 1 poste pour un étudiant francophone
Durée : 30h/semaine sur 8 semaines, débutant le plus tôt possible
Salaire: $11.25/h
Lieu : Canada
Date limite pour postuler : 10 juin.

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) est un réseau d’organisations locales constitué de jeunes et d’étudiants préoccupés par les impacts négatifs que les politiques concernant les drogues ont sur les individus et les communautés. Nous considérons l’usage problématique de drogues dans la société principalement comme un problème de santé publique plutôt qu’une question de justice pénale, et nous militons pour la mise en place d’interventions appropriées afin de réduire et de prévenir les risques liés à l’usage de drogue. CSSDP sensibilise et fournit des ressources pour redonner du pouvoir aux jeunes en leur permettant de prendre des décisions éclairées concernant les substances illicites, tout en créant simultanément un espace de discussion respectueux et sans jugements. CSSDP mobilise ses membres à participer dans les processus politiques à tous les niveaux, faisant pression pour que les politiques gouvernementales soient basées sur des données probantes, ce qui permettra au Canada de créer un futur plus sécuritaire et plus juste.

Résumé du poste : La personne employée occupera principalement des fonctions d’organisation communautaire, et sera responsable d’assister les différents chapitres de CSSDP dans la coordination de l’action nationale du regroupement, en utilisant les médias sociaux et blogues pour faire participer et sensibiliser les jeunes. Il sera également question d’aider à développer des stratégies de financement de substitution pour CSSDP. Nous recherchons un candidat très motivé et passionné par la réforme des politiques sur les drogues. Ce poste bénéficie de fonds provenant du programme Emploi d’été Canada 2016.

Tâches :

  • Travailler avec les chapitres de CSSDP et les organismes partenaires à coordonner des actions et évènements dans le cadre de la journée de mobilisation “Support Don’t Punish” le 26 juin prochain
  • Actualiser les plateformes des différents médias sociaux avec des nouvelles pertinentes, en particulier celles qui concernent le Canada
  • Créer des bulletins électroniques pour tenir à jour les membres de CSSDP
  • Produire des contenus innovateurs pour le site internet de CSSDP, et autres publications pertinentes
  • Rester à jour sur les développements dans le domaine des politiques sur les drogues, réagir avec les médias sociaux et du contenu innovateur au fil des évènements
  • Actualiser les ressources de l’organisation et le contenu du site web
  • Développer des stratégies pour obtenir des sources de financement de substitution
  • D’autres tâches pourront être assignées par le ou la superviseur(e)

Critères d’éligibilité:

  • Avoir entre 15 et 30 ans au moment de l’embauche
  • Avoir étudié à temps plein au cours de l’année scolaire 2015-2016
  • Prévoir retourner aux études à temps plein au cours de l’année scolaire 2016-2017
  • Adhérer à la mission, aux valeurs de l’organisation et à l’approche de réduction des méfaits
  • Être citoyen canadien, résident permanent ou désigné comme réfugié en vertu de la Loi sur l’immigration et la protection des réfugiés2; et
  • Être légalement autorisé à travailler au Canada conformément aux dispositions législatives réglementaires en vigueur dans la province ou le territoire visé.
  • Bilinguisme ; un atout
  • Connaissances en gestion ou graphisme informatiques ; un atout

Priorité sera donnée aux candidat(e)s ayant un handicap ou étant issu(e)s de groupes minoritaires.

Si vous souhaitez postuler, veuillez déposer votre candidature (C.V et lettre de motivation) dès que possible à Amélie Roulet (

Pour plus de renseignements ou pour toute question, n’hésitez pas à écrire à l’adresse
Pour en savoir plus sur CSSDP, visitez :
Pour en savoir plus sur le programme Emploi d’été Canada, visitez :

Summer Intern – Community Organizing (English)

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Number of Positions:
Duration: 30 hrs/wk for 8 weeks beginning as soon as possible
Wage: $11.25/hr
Location: Canada
Deadline to apply: June 10, 2016

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) is a grassroots network of autonomous chapters made up of youth and students who are concerned about the negative impact current drug policies have on individuals and communities. CSSDP considers drug use to be a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, and advocates for appropriate government and agency responses to reduce and prevent harm associated with drug use. CSSDP provides education and resources to empower young people to make informed decisions about illicit substances, while simultaneously creating a compassionate and non-judgmental space for discussion. CSSDP mobilizes its members to participate in the political process at all levels and to push for government policies grounded in evidence, which will help Canada achieve a safer and more just future.

Position Summary: The Community Organizing Intern will be responsible for assisting CSSDP chapters in coordinating a nationwide action, using social media and blogs to engage youth, and helping develop alternative funding strategies for CSSDP. We are seeking candidates who are passionate about drug policy reform and are highly motivated. These positions are supported by the Canada Summer Jobs program.

  • Work with CSSDP chapters and partner organizations to coordinate actions and events for “Support Don’t Punish” day of action on June 26
  • Update social media platforms with relevant developments, particularly those pertaining to Canada
  • Create email newsletters to update CSSDP membership
  • Produce unique content for CSSDP’s website and other relevant publications
  • Stay up-to-date on drug policy developments and respond with social media and unique content as the story develops
  • Update organization resources and website content
  • Develop strategies for alternate sources of funding
  • Other duties as assigned by supervisor
  • Be between 15 and 30 years of age at the start of employment
  • Was registered as a full-time student during the 2015-2016 academic year
  • Intend to return to school as a full-time student for the 2016-2017 academic year
  • Be aligned with the mission and values of the organization and with a harm reduction approach
  • Be a Canadian citizen, permanent resident, or person to whom refugee protection has been conferred under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
  • Be legally entitled to work in Canada in accordance with relevant provincial or territorial legislation and regulations
  • Bilingualism is an asset
  • Experience with management or graphic design is an asset

Priority will be given to applicants that have disabilities or who are from minority groups.

If you are interested in applying for the position, please send your CV and cover letter to Amelie Roulet ( at your earliest convenience. If you have any other questions or comments, don’t hesitate to email

To learn more about CSSDP, visit
To learn more about the Canada Summer Jobs program, visit

University of Winnipeg chapter

University of Winnipeg

We are the University of Winnipeg chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy!

We advocate for the decriminalization of drug use and believe that drug use should be an issue of public health, not criminal justice.

If you’re nearby, check out our Facebook group and come to our chapter events!

Send us an email:

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