Nazlee Maghsoudi

The first full day of the 2014 SSDP Conference was a blast! The only down side was having to choose between all the awesome breakout sessions. From media strategies for advocacy to cannabis legalization efforts, the panels covered numerous drug policy topics, but they all had two things in common…the speakers were great and the rooms were full! For this travel journal entry, I am going to highlight a couple of the most personally thought provoking ideas I came across today.

Decriminalization & Nightlife Harm Reduction

The necessity of nightlife harm reduction came up several times throughout the SSDP conference. Interestingly, Drug Policy Alliance’s Stefanie Jones discussed the connection between decriminalization and nightlife harm reduction, focusing specifically on her observations at an outdoor psytrance summer festival, known as Boom Festival, in Portugal, where all drugs are decriminalized for personal consumption.

Stefanie described three ways in which decriminalization changes harm reduction efforts at music festivals and in nightlife settings. First, when drugs are decriminalized, the relationship between festival organizers and harm reduction service providers becomes collaborative and mutually beneficial. In North America, harm reduction service providers, such as DanceSafe and Trip Project, often have to fight to be present at venues where drugs are likely to be used, and are commonly not permitted. In contrast, festival organizers in Portugal include harm reduction service providers as a crucial component of their events and work with them to create as safe of an environment as possible. Second, harm reduction service providers are able to disseminate very specific information on safer drug use, including information on topics such as dosage. Moreover, they are able to provide drug checking services in which people can find out the most necessary piece of specific information – exactly what is in their substance. This is unlike North America, where harm reduction service providers are often forced by festival organizers to modify the drug information they bring to the event (such as by omitting information pamphlets on certain substances, like heroin). Third, decriminalization creates a much more comfortable partying environment, as the stigma and fear that typically accompanies discussions on drug use is diminished. This creates a safer environment where people who use drugs are able to reach out for help and support if needed.

As part of the Fed Up rally in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 30, Lisa Campbell and I will be making a presentation to Members of Parliament on the need for drug checking services to protect youth from drug-related deaths and health complications. Although our presentation will discuss implementing drug checking within the current legal environment, it is interesting to consider whether decriminalization is a necessary precondition to improving the role of harm reduction services in nightlife.

Incremental Change & Modifying Your Message

One of the key takeaways from today’s panels was the importance of accounting for the type of change the political environment realistically allows and celebrating positive changes even if they are far below your ideal. “We’ll accept this for now, but we are going to keep coming back” is a good mantra for remembering to strike a balance between supporting steps forward, but remaining critical of their shortcomings. Lauren Galik from Reason Foundation stressed that it is often more useful to make recommendations that may be listened to, than to be “radical” and fall on deaf ears. For example, when advocating for the removal of mandatory minimums in Louisiana, Lauren Galik recognized that the conservative audience she was addressing might not be open to such a reform. This led her to simultaneously propose the adoption of a safety valve as an alternative, which although inferior to the removal of mandatory minimums, was a step forward from the laws as they currently stood (and one that was much more likely to be accepted). Modifying your message to your audience, without compromising your principles, is often a necessary and effective strategy in drug law reform.

I hope you gained some of your own insights from reading this post about my discoveries today, and you will come back tomorrow for some further reflections on what is being discussed at the 2014 SSDP Conference.