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Protecting Youth from Drug Policy

Organized by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, in cooperation with Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK.

Zara A. Snapp, Member of Secretariat, Global Commission on Drug Policy
Mexico is in a crisis.  A humanitarian crisis. Here at the CND, our Exterior Relations officials are quite good and they are some of our greatest allies for the inclusion of civil society voices and a transparent debate at and leading up to the UNGASS. I just wanted to make that clear before going further into the issues our society faces due to the war on drugs.

In 2006, President Felipe Calderon, launched the war on drugs in Mexico, with the support of the United States.  What this essentially did was militarize our public security.  Rather than having cops on the street (who are trained to “serve and protect”), the military began to play this role (military being trained to be at war).  The result of this decision was a dramatic increase in violence, human rights violations, and the criminalization of youth and poor people. This full-on conflict between organized criminal groups and the military, caused a disintegration of many communities.  Civilians were caught in that. Where joint operations were held, violence surged, and often there was a clear collusion between the military and organized criminal groups. This has caused confidence in institutions to plummet. One might say that we are having a crisis of institutions.  Both the war on drugs and our institutions have failed. This dual failure has manifested itself in a lack of rule of law.

Since 2006, we have had over 100,000 people killed, over 26,000 people have been disappeared (this means we don’t know where they are!), and hundreds of thousands have been displaced due to drug war related violence. In the past, the government said that if you were killed or disappeared, it was because you were involved in something.  They tried to silence those voices asking for justice.  But that is no longer possible.  Too many people are getting involved.

When you have that sort of context, young people are organizing around drug policy reform, but they are also organizing around normalized violence and the need to highlight the voices of victims. Organizations like ReverdeSer Colectivo are working hand in hand with the victims movement to help them in their search for truth, justice and memory for their loved ones.  These people have family members who have been killed or disappeared due to the violence.  And youth are there to support them- they work with them to organize structural changes, and one of those is drug policy reform.  But for us, it is one piece of the puzzle. Perhaps the most famous case right now is the students from Ayotzinapa.  We walk with them because we understand that they were criminalized because they were young and that this normalized violence simply shot up there.

In Mexico, we technically have a policy of decriminalization.  But in Mexico, that means 5 grams of cannabis and half a gram of cocaine.  Those amounts do not reflect reality.  The most likely scenario is that if you are caught with any amount of drugs (within reason), then you will be extorted by the police.  Even if you are within the quantity allowed, they will tell you that they will plant more on you and they will probably take you to an ATM to take out money.  We are currently working to increase the amount of cannabis allowed and we hope this will make the decriminalization more effective.

And although decriminalization is a first step, we do not stop there, we recognize that there is a dire, urgent need for legal, regulated markets of drug.  We have to differentiate between those that are involved in the cultivation and trafficking of substances from those who are involved in violent criminal activities such as murder, extortion, kidnapping or disappearances—what we call high-impact crimes. Those who are involved in the drug trade are choosing this because it is an economic decision, so we need to make that differentiation. Although it might be controversial to say this, there are also victims who work within the drug trade.  There are people who are not provided other opportunities. Right now our market is regulated.  But it is regulated by violence and organized criminal groups.  We recommend that even though our government might have immense problems and corruption, but we prefer to put our focus on strengthening our institutions, rather than handing over an entire market to organized crime.

Uruguay has been an example for us in Mexico and throughout latin america.  They are very clearly stating that they are giving precedence to human rights by regulating the cannabis market.  They are separating the drug markets so that people who want access to cannabis aren’t automatically given access to other drugs.  They are ensuring that there is a high-quality product.  There will not be tourism, there are age limits, but they are departing from reality, rather than assuming that we can accomplish some sort of utopia of a drug free world.

To end on a positive note, something which we are beginning to implement in Mexico is the testing of substances.  To analyze the levels of adulteration and better understand the risks of taking illegal drugs.  This has been slowly moving, but organizations are working with government institutions to make this program more feasible.

Rafael Gonzalez and Sarah Merrigan, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)
Discussed two specific examples of how prohibitionist drug policies harm youth. Rafael focused on the dangers of synthetic cannabis and why young people are driven to new psychoactive substances in the first place. By providing the audience with both a personal anecdote and scientific data, he explained how the illicit status of cannabis and other substances pushes youth towards new psychoactive substances, which can be more harmful than the original substance. Sarah focused on the story of Shelley Goldsmith and the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, better known as the RAVE Act. Shelley’s story illustrated a few of the many dangerous consequences of ignoring the reality of youth drug use and prioritizing prevention efforts over harm reduction practices.

Lisa Campbell and Nazlee Maghsoudi, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP)
Currently there are two trends occurring among young people who use drugs in Canada, specifically a rise in new psychoactive substances and the perception of MDMA as an unadulterated substance. Combined, these trends increase the public health challenges for young people who use drugs. These trends are important to understanding the failings and the places for improvement in prevention and harm reduction efforts in Canada.

Regarding prevention, there is limited evidence that common prevention campaigns, like public services announcements, are effective in curbing drug use. Showed a clip from a recent public service announcement created by Toronto Crime Stoppers, titled “Cookin with Molly.” Although this prevention campaign is effective in addressing the troubling trend of the perception of MDMA as an unadulterated substance, the public service announcement is deeply problematic in two ways. First, it has inaccurate adulterant information. The public service announcement ends with a reference to heroin being used to adulterate MDMA. This is inaccurate based on pure rationale and evidence. In terms of rationale, adulterants are meant to mimic the effect of the original substance and are cheap substances used to increase profit margins. Considering the opposite effects of MDMA and heroin (one is a stimulant and the other is a depressant), and the high street value of heroin, the use of heroin as an adulterant is not likely to occur. In terms of evidence, since the early 2000s, ecstacydata.org has not seen any MDMA pills from Canada cut with heroin. Clearly this is a fear-based approach to prevention, rather than an honest and evidence-based campaign, which is what youth deserve. Second, the public service announcement does not provide any harm reduction information. Given that this is targeted towards people who know what “molly” is, this exclusion of harm reduction is a huge missed opportunity which costs lives. In response to these two failures, CSSDP produced a response video in which they dubbed the adulterants to reflect the most common ones found in MDMA, and also added a list of harm reduction resources at the end. See http://cssdp.org/?p=1411.

Regarding harm reduction, CSSDP advocates for access to drug checking, an evidence-based harm reduction intervention that screens for problematic adulterants. Instead of waiting to intervene after someone overdoses, drug checking is a prevention technology which gives youth the information they need to stay safe. There are many outcomes to drug checking, including enabling governments and public health officials to monitor drug markets and thereby issue public health warnings when necessary and create modified prevention, harm reduction, and treatment programs. Most importantly, drug checking is proven to reduce deaths associated with adulterated substances, lower rates of problematic substance use, as well as to assist in lowering short-term and long-term negative effects associated with substance use. Recently, CSSDP created a policy brief on drug checking which was presented on Parliament Hill at the Fed Up Rally last fall (available at http://cssdp.org/DrugCheckingBrief.pdf). Drug checking is a direct response to the trends of new psychoactive substances emergence and proliferation and the perception of MDMA as unadulterated, as drug checking tells young people who use drugs exactly what is in their substances so they can assess risk accurately.

The health of young people who use drugs is just as important as those who don’t. The ineffective implementation of harm reduction and prevention costs lives. We have lost many young people in Canada as a result of inadequate harm reduction services and poorly designed prevention campaigns, and more pointedly, as a result of prohibition. If we can’t begin talking about the latter, we need to at least begin being more pragmatic in the way we implement harm reduction and prevention.

Judy Chang and Ayesha Mian, Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK (SSDP UK)

Using the two pillars of prevention and harm reduction as a lens through which to analyze how drug policies affect youth across seven European countries.

Focusing on the barriers of access to harm reduction for youth, which include age restrictions and parental consent. These policies are only applicable to some countries in Europe, and yet still effectively mean that thousands of youth do not have access to essential and life saving services.

Furthermore, other barriers include the lack of youth targeted and youth specific services. Harm reduction services need to be designed and set within environments that are familiar, welcoming and engaging for youth.

The retreat of multilateral donors such as The Global Fund from countries such as Romania and Montenegro are of particular concern in the provision of harm reduction services overall, and impact on the ability to design, implement and scale up youth focused programs.

Through the lens of the pillar of prevention, looking at the UK and specifically government prevention campaigns such as the Talk to Frank service. It is ineffective in youth relevant messaging, does not have credibility, and does not address youth at risk.

Recommendations from SSDP, CSSDP, and SSDP UK

  • Acknowledge that young people do use drugs, both licit and illicit, regardless of drug policies and prevention campaigns
  • Design fact-based, rather than fear-based, prevention campaigns which are participatory and inclusive of youth voices from the research through implementation stages
  • Include harm reduction information in prevention campaigns targeted towards young people in order to prevent harms for those few who will use drugs regardless of effective prevention
  • Ensure funding for harm reduction services in general, and in particular those with focus on young populations, which are tailored to the unique harm reduction and prevention needs of young people
  • Lift legal barriers to harm reduction services and parental consent restrictions for underage injecting drug users

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