Note: This interview has been edited for clarity, readability, and concision
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In brief, how did you get involved and get an interest in Canadian drug policy?
Dessy Pavlova: When I was in high school, I went to an alternative school. It was a school where people using drugs went to become educated. It was for people who could not function in a regular school environment, whether possession or skipping classes.
I was out of the hospital for a back operation. There were a few people with chronic disabilities or mental health issues. It was a cool school. We had time to socialize with other students there. We were free to stay all day. So, I would stay all day.
I met people with drug problems through TRIP Toronto. I did not get too involved with them because I was not going to events. There thing is outreach events. Through them, I found CSSDP.
I was about 18. When I graduated from the high school, I went to York University. I started the York chapter there. It was not successful, but it segued into being more involved over the years.
In 2015, I attended a CSSDP conference. I helped before the conference too. At the conference, we voted in a new board of directors. I am on the board of directors now. I have been active ever since.
Jacobsen: What tasks and responsibilities come along with this station or position?
Pavlova: I am the chair. I have been treasurer and vice chair. I am the outreach chair, too. With vice chair, I was the support the other members in the board, especially the chairs. Sub-committee chairs need help. I was there to make sure things are streamlined.
In case the chairs can not do something, I will take the leadership role. As outreach chair, I coordinate the website and events with both the board and chapters. Anytime there are events. We are putting new features such as the calendar on the website.
It is exciting because it will be a way to put chapters across Canada in one place. You can see the event, buy tickets to the event, and help bring everybody together. I see that as my main role, bringing everybody together and then streamlining communication and collaboration efforts.
Jacobsen: What do you consider the core principle of CSSDP?
Pavlova: If we were to reduce it to one, it would be harm reduction, but connected to sensible drug policy too. It is not about reducing harm alone. It is about putting out the education for people to make informed decisions.
I found that successful. Education goes farther than politicians and older adults give credit.
Jacobsen: Where do you hope CSSDP goes into the future?
Pavlova: I hope we become more recognized and involved with the government. We are a good means for them to reach youth.
“Just Say, ‘No!’” does not work. I am glad. They are working with us, e.g. workshops and roundtables. They will be more in touch youth and help solve some of these social problems.
Jacobsen: The two major philosophies to implement in society at large are the punitive or zero tolerance approaches and the harm reduction approaches. What is preferable to you, and why?
Pavlova: The harm reduction approach is more effective. You see this. In anything that we have been told not to do and punished for, e.g. if you look at safe sex, we are told to not have sex as teenagers. The truth: I do not know a single teenager who does not have sex.
Now, the ones practicing harm reduction would have safe sex. They become educated. It is the same situation. If you bar a child from doing something, they rebel.
Jacobsen: In addition, there are family and child protective services. There are means through which negative family impacts on a child and on youth can be dealt with apart from outright punishment approaches.
Pavlova: Punishment approaches in general cause more harm by separating a child from their parent than educating both parent and child on potential harms and how to reduce them. The separation of families is not the way to do it.
Cannabis is not considered the neighbourhood menace. People did not want to sign the names on the chapter list because they were scared since they smoked pot that cops would somehow get their hands on the list.
Now, we are coming to the point where we accept it is not that great of a harm and lesser than putting people in jail. I have seen parent with very sick children go to jail, who are currently in jail, because they provided medicine to their kids. Cannabis is only one. The conversation starts here.
Jacobsen: We were talking about marijuana and harm reduction philosophies in practice in Canada, especially since CSSDP mostly advocates for harm reduction philosophies, mentoring youth, and educating youth and the public at large on these issues.
We have an inverted pyramid of harm and legality/illegality or licit/illicit drugs or substances. For instance, the common examples are cigarettes and alcohol are legal, but have huge costs to individuals, families, communities, and society at large.
Whereas, you have things like marijuana. It seems, according to the evidence, far less harmful. Yet, we place alcohol and cigarettes near the bottom of the non-harm pyramid, and they are legal, but marijuana is illegal is considered relatively harmless.
This is something that plays out in many domains and substances. What is the source of this misconception at large?
Pavlova: It is largely political. Those of us that have studied the history of drugs that cannabis along with opium were made illegal mostly due to racism through propaganda. As soon as we make something legal, the harms associated drop.
To me, it is amazing cannabis is becoming legal. I never thought about this as a possibility in my lifetime. I really didn’t. Being a medical patient, it is amazing to me. It brings opportunities.
So, it is about how things are portrayed. Once something becomes legal, it’s state in the eyes of the general public changes rather than because of the evidence.
Jacobsen: Based on your better knowledge of the history of drugs, you mentioned racism as a major factor. Not only certain drugs being illegal, even though they have more benefits than harms. What people and drugs were associated with racism and the illegality of drugs?
Pavlova: Now, I can’t say for all drugs, but when opium was a problem, specifically in Vancouver. It was associated with Chinese immigrants. Basically, we had immigrants coming to the country. Due to lack of work and structure of society, they were indulging in a lot of drugs. It was not them alone. Even now, Rastafarian people use cannabis, on a regular basis.
It is white people who have made a medicinal community, where the value of that is even being brought to light. It has been 20 years of white people fighting to get it legal to show its medicinal value.
Same with opium. There are medicinal benefits to this, but the racism continues. That iss why it is such a problem. As we legalize, we need to keep that in mind because not allowing the people that have used such a substance culturally to be a part of it because of its previous criminal charges or not accessible financially is a problem.
It continues the racist cycle. We have the opportunity here to stop it.
Jacobsen: Two things related to one root. One is inertia to the past, which has impacts in the present. The other is the interactions in daily life with those that use it recreationally or therapeutically – how we behave, act, and so on, with them as well – will have impacts in the future in the way the inertia of the past is influencing us now.
It is a future-oriented responsibility. Any thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Pavlova: We have come a long way with drug policy. We have a lot of work to do. Even though cannabis is my own activist thing as a medicinal patient, this is not where the conversation ends. There are societal problems. We try to blame it on drug use.
The truth is that it is not because of drug use or irresponsible drug use. It is a symptom of a wider issue. The number one thing we can do to mitigate that symptom or alleviate that symptom is educate.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Dessy.