Note: This interview has been edited for clarity, readability, and concision.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In brief, how did you get interested in being involved in drug policy in Canada?
Jenna Valleriani: That is a big question! I am in sociology. I was interested in punishment and prisons, which is a natural extension of the consequences for drug prohibition. I was introduced to the medical cannabis program when a friend had back injury. He started talking about this process, where he earned a medical cannabis license.
It was fascinating from a sociological perspective because it was an underground route of access. It was knowing and talking to the right people. That year, I took a course with Dr. Pat Erickson. She is a drug policy scholar at University of Toronto.
It changed my outlook on what I wanted to study. That course made sense to me. Everything made sense. There is theory behind drug policy. I was fascinated by the history of prohibition in Canada and the social constructions around drugs and drug use.
I began narrowing into an interest in cannabis. I followed the story of a friend trying to gain access. It was about 8 years ago when access to medical cannabis in Canada was not as transparent and talked about as it is now.
I found that interesting. After the course with Pat, it opened a new door for me.
Jacobsen: You have a unique perspective. You are a doctoral candidate in sociology and collaborative addiction studies at the University of Toronto. You research transitions into federal medicinal cannabis programs in Canada, new industries, entrepreneurship, and social movements.
You are on the advising team and an advisor for CSSDP. How important is this advanced education and knowledge in advising people? What tasks and responsibilities come with this position?
Valleriani: With the advisory role, it is about mentoring young people interested in drug policy issues. It is about creating opportunities for involvement. People helped me. I want to offer that as well. An educational background is not necessary to take on a role in CSSDP.
We try to encourage all young people to get involved. We want young people who are interested in drug policy. It could be the perspective a drug user or a researcher. We try to take on the perspectives of the people who lives in everyday youth culture.
I am not sure if it is necessarily based on the education, but it might offer being in touch with changes in drug policy and the research around it. That is, it might help from a policy perspective.
I worked with CSSDP for 5 years. Therefore, I have a deep knowledge of the organization and changes in it. I see how we’ve grown. I served on the board for 3 years. I occupied a few different roles. I was the conference chair in 2015, which was our biggest conference. It sold out in Toronto.
I was on a few different committees. I was a vice-chair. The important part to the advisory role is a good understanding of the organizational structure and aims. Many people will ask if CSSDP is about encouraging drug use or attempting to deter drug use. The answer is neither for us. We are focused on the creation of sound policy around drugs and drug use, and finding ways to promote evidence-based alternatives and solutions.
Jacobsen: What do you consider the core principle of the CSSDP?
Valleriani: For us, it is about youth engagement and empowerment around drug policy issues. We try to facilitate ways for young people getting involved such as starting chapters, dispensing different resources for ongoing policies, finding ways to get young people to conferences, and so on.
For example, for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) 2016 meeting in New York, New York, we sent 10 youth to participate in the meeting. We want to empower and mobilize young people to become involved in it.
We look at policies around drug use and drug users, and how they treat those that do and don’t use drugs. Good policy is bigger than using drugs – it includes good policy for those that choose to not use drugs.
We take a human rights perspective and believe in harm reduction principles. It underlines everything for us.
Jacobsen: What do you mean by “a human rights perspective” underlying everything that you do?
Valleriani: When we are talking about human rights in drug policy, it is an acknowledgement that drug users have voices too. That young people have voices. They can participate. It takes a holistic approach for people’s rights throughout the whole process.
Jacobsen: Where do you hope the CSSDP goes into the future?
Valleriani: I want to see CSSDP grow. We are gaining more recognition with the government as a youth body, which is in tune with things on-the-ground and how drug policy in Canada affects young people here.
I want to see us grow in our outreach with the government. I would like to see us grow in chapter sizes. Also, we have a national board. I want to see this expansion continue.
I want to see the CSSDP grow in its capacity to take on more young people. I would love to see a mentorship program grow out of it for youth interested in drug policy.
I consider a grassroots approach to how we mobilize young people one of the most important things by us.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Jenna.