Side Event: Young People Use Drugs – Bridging the gap between Human Rights and Young Key Populations

Alex Betsos (CSSDP): Welcome. We will structure our event today around the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy. There is still language missing about youth in terms of autonomy, it is very much children focused. Our panelists will talk about what builds on that point, how we work to bridge the gap between protecting human rights and young people who use drug. First, Ailish will talk about the Paradigma Youth Coalition. She has been focusing her studies on drug policy and homelessness, intersections of LGBTQ and feminist issues.

Ailish Brennan (YouthRise): Young people from all walks of life, on every continent face diverse stigma, harm and threats to well-being as consequences of our current drug policies. Young people’s futures are placed under threat by punitive drug policies, they experience harassment at the hands of police and ostracization from society. Myself and my colleagues often work with little support. In many parts of the world, we face intimidation and harassment for simply attempting to protect young people by reducing the harm associated with drug use. Our lives are unnecessarily put at risk in the name of prohibition. After the systemic lack of youth advocacy was noticed at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, funding was allocated by the Open Society Foundations for a Youth Convening in Bangkok in 2017. Here, our organisations proclaimed the Paradigma Coalition – a global youth coalition for a new paradigm in drug policy. Originally comprised of six organizations, we have now expanded to over fifteen organizations contributing to the work of the Coalition. Our geographical scope has grown from the founding members to include organizations in Sub Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South-East Asia. Combined, our organizations have thousands of representatives in every region of the world. The Paradigma Coalition has since provided a platform to connect diverse youth representatives in drug policy reform. Those within our network regularly coordinate to attend international conferences and share content, resources and strategy to build movements in our own regions. Since 2017, the Paradigma Coalition has run multiple side events centering youth perspectives at the annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
Our Vision is a global coalition of youth-led organisations who can centre youth voices in drug policy across all levels. Our Mission is to develop the capacity of young people from all over the world to be agents of change, transforming drug policy with a gender, racial and social justice perspective, respecting multiculturalism, and benefiting communities that have been most affected by the War on Drugs. In our involvement in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, we have noticed a number of shortcomings in promoting youth involvement have remained since UNGASS in 2016. The Resolution L5 this year entitled ‘Promoting involvement of youth in drug prevention efforts’ praises the success of the Youth Forum which runs concurrently to the main CND proceedings. This Youth Forum is designed to give young people a voice at the United Nations while drug policy legislation is discussed by Civil Society and Government delegations. While the Youth Forum has been attempting to engage young people in the UN processes, in a controlled format segregated from everyone in this room, actual young people have been contributing to discussions and holding side-events at the CND. These young people, have been resolutely and systematically ignored in attempts to raise concerns over the way our lives are being impacted by the current prohibitive drug policy regime. We believe that it is vital that the people most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs should be involved in the decision making process. In order to achieve this, there needs to be an increase in youth, and specifically youth from the global south, representation at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, outside of just the sterile Youth Forum. We also believe that harm reduction measures should be embraced by the UN, and even enshrined in the international drug control conventions, as a matter of urgency. The world’s young people are often in close contact with drugs, and the past fifty years of the War on Drugs has done little to change that fact. Our work in direct contact with our peers has demonstrated that access to evidence-based education and health services without fear of punishment can create a safer, health-focused culture around drug use. All the work done by Paradigma up to this point, outside of the original founding meeting in Bangkok, has been done with minimal formal support, either financial or otherwise. While each member organization has its own streams of funding, the work done by Paradigma has been done entirely independently. Regular online meetings, forming our mission and vision, organizing pre-CND meetings and preparing an “Asks Document” in advance of last years CND to highlight our demands for member states, were all done voluntarily and because we firmly believe that it is imperative that changes are made to current drug policy legislation in order to save lives and minimize harm caused to young people. It is crucial that the current drug control regime changes to acknowledge and invest in harm reduction services such as drug checking kits, supervised injection facilities and nightlife harm reduction. To promote evidence-based, age-appropriate education that aims to provide objective information on drug use that prioritizes the reduction of harm rather than relying on fear and intimidation. As well as to decriminalize drug use and remove associated penalties for the possession of drugs. These are imperative steps if we hope to have any tangible, positive impact on our young people’s futures. Noting that the present approach to drug control has failed to achieve its stated objectives, we sincerely hope that as we move into the future, a future that it is said we must protect for the young people of today, we will see a change in attitude. We hope that with your help and engagement, the voices of young people will be listened to, that the demands of Paradigma and our member organizations will be listened to, and the necessary steps are taken to ensure a bright and prosperous future for our generation and all the generations that will come after.

Joana Canedo (Metzineres): It is bittersweet being here and walking these corridors every year. Where is community? It seems like every year we are too little representation of communities and community responses. Global North centered discussion: states across citizens. Some principles such as dignity and the rights to use drugs have not been addressed so far. The right to life and the right to live with dignity and safety should be pivotal. Its not every year that a document comes out with intersectionality but it’s still missing any reference young people who use drugs as a key population – that is why we are here. Without peers, we don’t really address vulnerability – it is completely missing in these guidelines. We demand to be listened to and we demand accurate information. We demand safer spaces to use drugs – this includes minorities and access to housing. Non-judgmental spaces, LGBTQ specific services. Barcelona Declaration – the War on Drugs are affecting us as a population including our sisters that are not here and remain invisible.

Seyi Kehinde (YR Nigeria): YR Nigeria conducted a study in 2015 about the impact of drug policy on young people. The laws that were meant to protect us have been shown to repress vulnerable people: arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention, sexual harassment/rape, forced treatment/rehabilitation are prevalent issues in Nigeria. There is a huge gap in treatment needs and access, available care. 40% of high-risk drug users are unable to access the treatment they need. People tend to turn to unorthodox ways of treating drug issues such as a ‘Shackling Systems’. In 2019 Torture chambers have been discovered for 67 persons for people aged 7-40. You see a story of a young friend who was discovered to have been using Cannabis by his parents. He was taken to a “reformation centre” where he was horrifically treated and made him deceive his captors about his changed behavior just to get away. Drug treatment has to be case specific and we have to review legal frameworks that conform to human rights standards.

Clement Bofa-Oppong (SSDP International/Ghana chapter): Young people are losing their lives to the War on Drugs all over the African continent. We need evidence-based information not fearmongering! Right from infancy, you have all these ideas about drugs. I got involved in drug policy because I lived in a community where young people were very vulnerable to drug related problems, many of my peers have fell into troubles. Our policies are not providing solutions. When I was 14, my father abandoned me, I nearly fell into peer pressure to do drugs. It took good counselling and support from my community to avoid the issues that my friends had due to becoming problematic drug users. I’ve seen friends jailed for 5-10 years for possession or personal use. Criminal records and the huge fines have worse effects on these vulnerable youth groups that the use itself. Why would you put someone in jail that needs your help? Fines must be based on the individual’s economic situations. We have a long way to go until a comprehensive drug policy that really provides a support system to young people. 70% of all resources must be reserved for treatment. We have so many religious groups in my country – they must reserve resources to addressing the root causes. We are the leaders of today! We need pragmatic solutions.

Audience question: Thank you for mentioning full-spectrum harm reduction. It is up to us to define this. In many countries figuring out growing. Youth Forum – do you have a plan to infiltrate that?

Clement: How best we can empower young people to use tools and resources. YF is difficult from the Global South. Take info home and pass it on.

Alex: We’ve been lucky, we are slowly able to bring diverse perspectives to the Youth Forum and we hope to engage further with our own delegations.

Audience question: Nigeria has taken up a pilot re NSP, has youth been involved in that? Nigeria is good at designing projects without involving its audiences…

Seyi: We are mostly beneficiaries of these programmes but drug users networks are the only places we can secure youth representations. Advocacy has a long way to go.

Audience question: Regards to Kenya, communities being underrepresented is a huge issue. How does youth put their heads together to bring community here?

Seyi: The law is the same, repressive, to be honest. We push the agenda but space for discussion is not huge.

Clement: I’ve realized I have to establish good relationships with key people, you need diplomatic support to travel anywhere. I’ve consulted the Parliament at home before and so I had to leverage that network to secure support.

Alex: We learned a lot about VISA procedures in the past years and we are fundraising to bring more diverse youth voices from the Global South.

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