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.
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.