Note: This interview has been edited for clarity, readability, and concision.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in Canadian drug policy?
Kyle Lumsden: For a 3rd year public policy class, I wrote a paper on INSITE and injection sites as cost effective tax payer policy. I got my ‘feet wet’ in 2014. So, I wrote this big research paper. I became convinced through learning about drug policy issues.
There is a show called The Wire. The show got me into drug prohibition and policy at a young age. The Wire is about selling drugs in the city of Baltimore. It got me thinking about the legality of drugs. It has been more of an academic issue.
Last May, I was looking to volunteer places. I went to the U of T volunteer directory groups. CSSDP was there. I was invited to the Support Don’t Punish event. I started with a blog post on drug policy and bill C-2. I started that way. I met Dan last September. I helped him run the 9/20, mushroom event. We co-authored an article on psychedelics for mental health.
I am interested in topics such as mushrooms, LSD, Ayahuasca, MDMA, ketamine, and so on. It is for treating mental health problems. It is an area of interest because things like depression and PTSD are hard to treat.
These are novel and interesting methods to treat them. I am in the process of finishing an article on alcohol-based harm reduction, which is an area of personal interest in harm reduction because alcohol has harmed people in my life. I wrote an article on alcohol harm in Canada and public opinion in Canada for a political science class.
Jacobsen: What tasks and responsibilities come with being the chapter co-leader for the University of Toronto position for CSSDP?
Lumsden: I am on the national board. I am the secretary of the national board. I am the representative to the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Each of those have their own things. I have to take minutes of the board meetings.
Now, I will be organizing the agenda for each board meeting. For the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, it is an organization-think tank for drug policy reform. I have to attend a monthly meeting with Donald MacPherson in a steering committee for drug policy.
On the board, I have to attend the monthly meetings. I am on the outreach committee for organizing events. I do whatever they ask of me.
Jacobsen: What do you think is the core principle of the CSSDP?
Lumsden: It is harm reduction and grassroots activism. It is engaging young people. Harm reduction is interesting. I started university at 25. I taught overseas. I am 29 now. I can stay in CSSDP until May, when I turn 30. Also, I graduate in a couple of months. My time with CSSDP is coming to a close.
Jacobsen: With respect to harm reduction philosophy as a model and strategy, what do you consider its core outlook on drugs and drug policy?
Lumsden: It is probably to help people where they stand and to acknowledge individuals do harmful activities and substances rather than moral condemnation and criminal punishment to help them not make the situation worse. It is more pragmatic and realistic; not based on ideology or idealism.
Jacobsen: The opposing position as a philosophy tends to be a punitive or zero tolerance approach. What do you think of its general philosophy?
Lumsden: It is misguided. I am more to the center from most of the people in the CSSDP in terms of political views. My major is in criminology. I have done research in Toronto. I interviewed many police officers. I asked them many questions.
I do not get mad at people that think an arrest is acceptable for drug use, but it is misguided and based on the idea that punishment will change the behavior. Everyone was raised with this view.
It is based on the misguided idea that prisons and punishment reform people, but people do drugs in prison. The time of release from prison is the greatest likelihood of overdose death. Drug crimes are the great forms of recidivism.
When I started the research, it was about the laws fulfilling the intended claims. This philosophy of punishment in general does not work for substances.
Jacobsen: Do you consider the preventative part of harm reduction philosophy or the treatment part more important?
Lumsden: I think the second part. Treatment and rehabilitation are more important than prevention. Prevention is difficult, especially with ‘forbidden fruit.’ I do not know how you can stop teens from smoking pot or becoming ‘blackout’ drunk. It is human nature.
People are born. They take substances. Prevention is important. Substance use does not need to be prevented or treated all of the time. Only 20% of people that try drugs become addicted to them. 80% do not acquire problematic addictions.
Even if they do a line of cocaine, they are not by necessity addicted. If they do it on New Years, does that mean they have that type of addiction? Maybe or maybe not; the focus on prevention and treatment can ignore the fact that it does not need to be prevented or treated. Of course, there are cases where that is needed too.
Jacobsen: Harm reduction philosophy is not only a theory, but a practice, too. You mentioned INSITE before. It is one practical example. What practical example across Canada seems like a good success story of harm reduction philosophy in practice?
Lumsden: INSITE is one. Recently, legalization of heroine-assisted treatment for opiate addicts was announced. The previous system was the methadone clinics. It is a synthetic opioid. It is addictive and can be problematic.
Also, the advice of ‘cold turkey’ or abstinence only for people with alcohol or opioid dependency can be dangerous for them. It needs to be a ‘weaning off’ system with opiates or alcohol.
The second one is part of NARCAN-naloxone training. Basically, the overdose reversal drug that can be used now. It can be acquired with prescription in pharmacies in Ontario. It is an example of a harm reduction philosophy in practice.
It has been a good shift for harm reduction because it is more widespread to save people’s lives in the case of an overdose. Even though, we do not like the fact they have an overdose.
Jacobsen: In part one, you mentioned working abroad. Did you notice any differences in responses to drug and drug use compared to Canada?
Lumsden: I was in Turkey, which is a Muslim country. It is punitive. I was in China too. It has some of the most draconian drug laws. I did not talk about this subject too much. I am confident both of these places are more conservative.
It is more influenced by traditional values and family values. There is more shame, especially in China. If you were known to be some sort of undesirable in trait – fat or do drugs, you are shamed. It is entrenched and deep.
In the West, and Canada especially, even places like the Czech Republic, we are more liberal and with talking about drugs.
Jacobsen: Are there differences in the types of drugs and the ratio of their use?
Lumsden: Yes, it is interesting because drug consumption is dictated by culture. When I was doing this research project on alcohol consumption and harm, every single Muslim country has the smallest alcohol harm on the planet.
Russia is very high. Social norms, stigma, history of consumption, and so on, shape consumption rates. In Turkey, people drink less because it is Muslim-majority. People do not accept alcohol in social settings.
In China, people smoke a lot. Cigarettes are cheap. I saw smoking a lot. In Canada, we smoke as a cultural thing.
Jacobsen: You note cigarettes. It is one of the most harmful products around. Both are legal. Do you have considerations on the inverted pyramid on the harmfulness of drugs and legality of drugs?
Lumsden: I do. Economists and the World Health Organization release reports on the global and specific country for the harm of drugs. Alcohol and cigarettes are number one and two. They are followed by marijuana, LSD, and so on.
Tobacco costs Canada about $17 billion per year. Alcohol costs Canada about $14.5 billion per year. Tobacco kills almost 7 million people worldwide. Alcohol kills almost 2.5 million worldwide.
The other substances are not comparable. If you put tobacco and alcohol as diseases on paper, people would say, “This is an epidemic.” People love drinking and think it is fine. It is weird. We have this strong affinity, not so much with tobacco.
Tobacco use has been declining for the last 20 years due to policy and social norms. We made cigarettes more expensive, banned smoking in public spaces, and put those disgusting ads on them. It caused a circular effect.
People will judge you if you’re smoking outside some place. It has not happened with alcohol. I am confident that with these harm costs in Canada alcohol will surpass cigarettes. There are more liberalized alcohol sales policies.
It is interesting how the stigma and the policy can work together. Obviously, all of these other drugs – weed, mushrooms, LSD, even cocaine and heroine – are not even close. It has been odd to have this tiered system, where the two most subjectively harmful are the most socially acceptable. However, if people did heroine like the drank, I bet heroine would be much worse.
Jacobsen: CSSDP collaborates with multiple organizations. What are some of the partnerships? What are some of the effects you’ve seen of it?
Lumsden: Other groups include the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. I helped throw a couple of events with the International Centre for Science and Drug Policy. There is a collection of harm reduction agencies. They overlap. They work together. I met a girl who works for a community group in Toronto called the Inner City Family Health Team, which is about alcohol harm reduction for homeless males.
Jacobsen: What about something like the United Nations for drug policy in Canada? Some coordinating umbrella group that every joins and is volunteer, by consent for joining, leaving at any time. Is that a viability for bringing everything under one roof?
Lumsden: I would like it. I would be happy to join it and contribute to it. I do not consider drugs are popular as a topic. Weed is now. People talk about it without fear of stigma. If I start talking about legalization of heroine, people have bad reactions.
If we go to U of T and try to join a group advocating for those things, people are interested in it. However, they do not want to label themselves. People work in drug policy. Usually, I ask them the question.
I want to work in drug policy or the government. I want an interesting academic job. I do not want to be stigmatized and labelled based on the research. It is ridiculous. I have needle phobia. I could not do heroine if I wanted to do it. It is powerful and stigmatizing.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Kyle.