By Alex Betsos

Five years ago, on April 16th, 2016, I got off a bus going from Washington, D.C. to New York City, where I joined a protest outside the United Nations. The protest, led by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, called for the UN to take seriously the voices of youth and people who are most directly impacted by prohibition. The reason that members of this protest—including myself, several CSSDP board members, and students from various CSSDP chapters—had travelled to the US was that, for the first time since 1998, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Narcotic Drugs (which I’ll just refer to as UNGASS) was to take place.

Since then, I have had the chance to attend the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, Austria in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The CND meets annually to propose various drug policy measures/changes and to gleefully ban drugs. 

At the CND governments do not imagine what the world could be. The annual event, “International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking,” is a realpolitik event where UN member states fantasize about a drug free world.

Support. Don’t Punish is meant to protest the human rights violations done under international prohibition. 

Today, we at CSSDP will do something different. We have brought youth to talk about the problems in their lives created by prohibition. But, more than that,

Participants will be imagining a world that needs to be

July 26th is #WorldDrugDay. It is also my last day at CSSDP – after seven total years of being involved.

I take this moment to reflect on my time at CSSDP – and the drug world I want to begin imagining. You will hear from many others today. 

What I have learned from my time in CSSDP & as International Rep over the years is this:

Ending prohibition is about more than decriminalizing/removing all penalties for possession of drugs (although this is critical). It also requires us to re-imagine our relation to illegal drugs, which is grounded in colonial violence and extraction. International drug policy is a place for coalition-building and finding ways to support people across the world.

In my time covering CND and serving as CSSDP’s International Rep, I’ve written blog posts, co-organized protests of the Youth Forum and covered the daily side events and the plenary sessions. I’ve helped to rally an international youth drug policy coalition (known as the Paradigma Coalition) alongside friends and colleagues from across the world. I’ve written hundreds of tweets covering the roles and positions Canada—and other countries—play in international drug policy, and have tried to make international drug policy accessible to youth and a broader public in Canada.

It’s not that this information isn’t available in other places; it is, but if you haven’t heard of the CND Blog, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), or the Transnational Institute (TNI; and there are many others) or know why you might want to care about them, then you’re unlikely to seek out the information they have to offer.

Why should you care though?

It’s a fair question.

I think it’s critical to know how Canada (or any country!) presents itself internationally, and the ways it works to enact policies. Canada has been present in international drug prohibition since 1909. Canada is certainly not the most important actor in the history of international drug prohibition, but it has played, and continues to play, an outsized role relative to its position at the UN.

The first person to chair the CND was actually a Canadian: Colonel Sharman, a man who praised the Nazis when they locked up drug traffickers in internment camps, and who was largely responsible for Canada’s drug policy throughout the Depression and World War II. According to Will McAllister (1999), Sharman was US drug war architect Harry Anslinger’s “soulmate” (94), and is, in part, responsible (along with Anslinger and some others) for the heavy enforcement orientation of CND (157-8). In essence, Canada has a long history of involvement at home and abroad in creating international policy.

UNGASS set off a five-year process that changed how I saw the world. It showed me how, when it comes to drugs, the UN functions as a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare (which is a generous characterization) that has historically propped up human rights violators in the service of an aethereal “drug free world.” CND and the people I have met over the years opened my eyes to the need to think of drug policy as necessarily requiring an internationalist lens in our drug policy thinking, if not in our work.

When it comes to cannabis, Canada has benefitted directly from the very international prohibition scheme it created. In the blog post I wrote in 2020, I noted that, “We talk far less about canna-colonialism, namely that Canadian cannabis companies are forcing their way into other countries’ medical cannabis industries across the world.”

2021 was supposed to be my last year at CND. I had intended to take a CSSDP’er with me to introduce them to everyone involved in youth drug policy, but there were other plans in the works, which unfortunately could not occur due to the pandemic. The other youth drug policy organizations, and the people involved in them, have been important to me personally, but they are also crucial in keeping an organization like CSSDP oriented with an international focus.

Without others to celebrate and commiserate with, attending the CND is a miserable hell-hole, where dreams of reform go to die. By meeting with other people, we learn of their local struggles, their challenges, and how prohibition operates differently everywhere one goes. They also provided me with the chance to experiment with ways of organizing at the UN.

I should be clear, I do not really see the UN as a place for radical change, nor a place to direct all of one’s energy. What it provides, instead, is a place and time for organizing, creating, and imagining what I refer to as “other possible drug worlds”: in essence, other ways of thinking about how alternative relationships to these substances we call “drugs” may look.

In 2017, I was part of a group of activists that squatted on the floor of the bar at the UN in Vienna and began working on a project that others had initially proposed in 2016. It was (to me!) really more of an idea, a youth “network of networks” or a youth international drug policy solidarity and collaboration organization, called Paradigma.

Since that meeting, Paradigma, has had several other meetings together, with various members of our little group on the ground taking up the mantle of leading it. In 2019, we created a pamphlet to critique (as opposed to protest… Those aren’t allowed at the UN) the ongoing infantilization of youth who attend the CND as part of the “Youth Forum,” where youth, often with little to no knowledge of drug policy, create a statement, and then present it to the UN. Nothing happens with this document.

The UN delegates who bothered to attend clap like parents watching their 1st grade child perform in the school play.

And then these youth walk away, most of them never to see any of the actual events of CND. We also had side events at CND from 2017-2020, which featured voices of young people from across the world. In 2020, we held a big meeting just before CND, and Orsi Feher (SSDP International/Austria) and I took the reins of the project.

That year, in spite of the pandemic, we organized an incredibly successful Support. Don’t Punish event. Support. Don’t Punish is a counterprotest to the UN’s “International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking,” a day which, in previous years, some governments have used to justify the killing of drug traffickers – echoing in some ways the CND’s historical goal of subverting human rights for supply side interventions via Sharman and Anslinger. Since the pandemic meant that everyone was stuck at home, the Paradigma Coalition decided to create what I consider my most successful project to date: An international youth conference based on the Support. Don’t Punish events hosted by the various youth/student drug policy organizations within the Coalition. We designed a website and spanned countries in North America, Latin America, the Balkans, Western/Eastern Europe, and Africa. People from across the world talked about the violence they, or young people in their lives and communities, face. Others threw parties, while others discussed the intersection between drug policy and police abolition. It drew the attention of other drug policy organizations. The kids could do cool shit. Other possible drug worlds are possible indeed. 

This year I did not attend CND. In all honesty, between the pandemic and Support. Don’t Punish, as well as many other side projects and a full-time job, I crashed and burned. Only since March have I really started to recover. A lot of the international youth drug policy folks also took time off, but many did not. CSSDP’s Erika Dupuis pulled off a CSSDP first by joining the Youth Delegation for the Youth Forum on behalf of the Canadian government; admirably, SSDP International and Youth RISE both covered the events. They even had post-CND Zoom calls which I hopped on after certain days of the conference. 

One project I’m excited to work on this year, in my post-CND/CSSDP time, involves some of my colleagues in Mexico. We’ll by trying to figure out ways to address safe supply in Canada while recognizing the violence that occurs in Mexico annually due to the drug war. I have also joined Youth RISE as an International Working Group Member for the next year, with the hope of turning some of my international drug policy focus inward rather than outward. Finally, due to my involvement at CND, I have been asked to sit on the advisory board for a special series entitled “Young people, drugs and harm reduction,” where I hope I get the chance to support some people in writing academic articles! 

When I picked the title “Coming of Age In International Drug Policy,” I was (in poor anthropological form) playing on the title of Margaret Mead’s famous and highly controversial, Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead. I was also alluding to one of my favourite genres: The Coming-of-Age story, or a bildungsroman. It’s not that I was a child when I went into UNGASS—either literally or metaphorically—but rather that UNGASS & CND writ large were part of some of the most formative moments in my life. They gave me my politics, and, as much as I still consider the CND to be a site where drug policy dreams go to die, I believe it still operates as a space of possibility, one where, when we work together, we have the possibility to imagine a different world. But only if we do so together. 

This year I learned to let go. Sanjana Mitra coordinated the event (with lots of support from the whole team, including Kiah Ellis-Durity, Erika DuPuis, Mary Kelly, Tess Walker, and of course myself. It is an incredibly brilliant project & one I think we need to explore further as drug policy activists. In year 6 of the overdose crisis, 50 years since the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and 60 years since the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Today you are all in for a treat. It’s an experiment in a form of participatory drug reform.

What I’ve described above, is how I found my voice & the vision I see of what Another Drug World could look like. 

I’m so excited to see what futures others imagine today, what inspirations for another world they could provide us.

You can watch the event on Facebook Live:


Both Chats will Be moderated. Ask your questions, and we will try to see if they can be included.