Home » Side Event: Won’t Somebody Think of the Children? Youth Welfare in Drug Policy

Side Event: Won’t Somebody Think of the Children? Youth Welfare in Drug Policy

Title: Won’t Somebody Think of the Children? Youth Welfare in Drug Policy
Organizer: Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Co-sponsors: Youth Rise

Summary: While the welfare of young people is a key aspect of drug policy efforts, the ability of youth to have direct input in decision-making has been limited. In this side event, young people across the policy spectrum reunite to discuss current challenges to youth welfare and how their participation can be maximized in the development of the policies that directly affect them and their peers. With representatives from across the globe, embodying various drug policy approaches, this event will let you hear what young people have to say and realize the importance of meaningful youth engagement.


Benedicta Apuamah is a pharmacist who is passionate about the UN SDGs. Her passion and many community engagements earned her a spot at the Management Center Innsbruck (MCI), Austria as the first recipient of the Ban Ki-moon/ MCI Scholarship. Benedicta is studying for an M.A in International Health and Social Management. She served as Vice President of the Students for Sensible Drug Policies (SSDP) in Nigeria.


Hajar Seiyad (she/her) is a 4th-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, pursuing a double major in Mental Health Studies and Political Science. Her interests lie at the intersection of mental health, public policy, and youth advocacy. Her passion for youth engagement has allowed her to support several initiatives aimed at reducing stigma and advancing health equity. She is dedicated to co-creating opportunities by youth and for youth, as well as recognizing lived experiences as a form of expertise. 

She is a fellow with Yale University Lived Experience Transformational Leadership Academy: Let(s)Lead and is a Knowledge Mobilization fellow with Frayme. Hajar currently sits on the University of Toronto’s Sustainable Development Goals Student Advisory Council. She is excited to be the Canadian Youth Representative to attend the United Nation’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Keelin O’Reilly  is a research officer at the Drug Policy Modelling Program, UNSW Sydney. Her interests include non-criminal approaches to drug use and harm reduction policies. She recently graduated from a Bachelor of Arts and Social Science (Honours) completing her thesis exploring Australian government inquiries’ recommendations about criminal and non-criminal approaches to drug use. Keelin was selected as the Australian representative for the 2022 UNODC Youth Forum on drug prevention.

Meryem Nagehan Ulusoy works at the International Cooperation Department as a specialist at the Turkish Green Crescent Society. She received her B.A in the English Language and Literature from Yeditepe University (2017) and from double major in Political Science and International Relations from Yeditepe University (2018). She finalized her masters studies in European Studies from Sabancı University (2019) and continued her second masters in Political Science at Sabancı University. Throughout her experiences, she worked in European Commission sponsored projects and worked as a teaching assistant in Humanity Courses. Her research interests include gender studies, women, health and politics. She now works at the Turkish Green Crescent Society, International Cooperation Department where she follows the recent international discussions and agenda on drug policies.

Mayank Singh is a young researcher and advocate from Delhi who works to support and promote youth-centered programs and policies, with a specific focus on drugs and PWID. He currently works as a project manager for YouthRISE Global Fund Projects.

Session Minutes:

Benedicta: What is the primary objective for young people in drug policy?

Hajar:  In regards to the primary objective, what I really think related to young people and their role and and drug policies through my own experience with family members who use drugs or working in an addiction medicine clinic here in Toronto, Canada, I really saw these far reaching impacts of drug addiction and most specifically stigma on individuals and communities at large. So when I think about how you should be involved, I know that youth are always going through many different things and there’s always this peer pressure from outside forces. So I think just related to drug policy, it’s one thing to focus on prevention, but then also to really focus on reducing stigma so that can be through educational efforts through youth participation and engagement. It’s not enough for adults to only be making these. I feel like youth are really compassionate and have a lot to say. You can really shape up these policies at local and national international level; so, yeah, I really think focusing on the stigma would be a great, great focus and very concentrated there.

Meryem: Let me start by also mentioning an initiative here and certain speakers in society, because it’s really related to this topic because we believe that we embrace a holistic approach and we believe that young people should have platforms right to talk about their experiences. They also should be involved in the decision making this decision making processes and by providing platforms to for young people and they can express themselves. And they also can share their experiences to one another. And these platforms should not be limited to national and also these. These should be international and regional platforms as well. So that young people from different parts of the world should be connected and empowered to be active in different divergent environments. And also and from another perspective, drug policies should not include punitive measures. Especially when it comes to youths. Public health should be the first priority here and the primary objective of drug policies related to young people. I ask you to incorporate them into these decision making processes, make them active, I mean to to hear them make their voices heard. So this will be my answer for the primary objective. 

Keelin: I think focusing on harm should be the primary objective, but echoing off what Hajar said, I think not just focusing on the direct comes from drug use, but also the broader harms that come from the criminalization of drug use, such as stigma. And I think that focusing on these broader harms and focusing on helping marginalized people who use drugs and experience the really harmful effects of stigma would be something that would be really important. And I think those two can go hand in hand. You can help to focus on the direct harms from drugs, but also the broader harms. And I think involving young people in these spaces is really important because young people are really compassionate and young people look at drugs in a new way, and they don’t bring as much of that background with them. I think it’s a really great way to be able to change these policies and to be able to help people. 

Mayank:  I think the primary objective is everyone has already mentioned, especially early on, is to replace stigma with empathy. And I think that’s when you sort of dealing directly with the youths. And second point, which shows I think someone made, was to promote a right to treatment and services, which is option for youths. Moving on, there is a lack of inclusion when it comes to youths participation in decision making processes. So this can only be achieved when you provide you with a platform set up friendly for them to participate. And lastly, in my experience, what I’ve seen in my country that a lot of often times the system fails to distinguish between adults and youths. So I think it is like a lack of youth-specific needs when it comes implementing activities.

Benedicta: It’s important that we have policies that are tailored for the youth and not just generally like the policies being generalized. How do you see roles in drug policy?

Mayank: OK, I think tokenistic participation is something we see often when youths are being invited to such platforms to speak; t’s rather tokenistic rather than meaningful engagement. So I think that should be replaced. And secondly, I think it begins right from the policymakers to the grassroots level. But, drug use patterns are ever changing. So I think having one policy for just a diverse range of issues is something that we should all learn more about. It should be more elaborate. 

Keelin  Yeah, I agree. I think that that’s a big difference between tokenistic and meaningful participation in Australia. I see a lot of young people in frontline work, a lot of non-government organizations that provide harm-reduction services, which I think is really amazing. But then a lot of the time, they don’t get the opportunity to partake in the policymaking aspect of policy course. And I think spaces to have young people have input into those processes is really important and I think often missing. And when it does occur, it can be tokenistic. So having youth led spaces where they have yet real meaningful opportunities to provide policy input, I think would be amazing. But I don’t think I see that very often.

Benedicta: Hajar, can you give us a Canadian perspective?

Hajar: Sure thing. In terms of the role that I’ve seen, you take a lot of the times it’s been, you know, they’ve had to be very proactive and within their communities, on campuses to really self-organized, you know, so they’ve either decreased platforms like it started off, you know? You know, they really wanted to gain credibility. They wanted to engage community members and peers and mobilize other interests. That use of an expanded reach for a lot of it is the blood, and a lot of it’s happening from what I’ve been saying is happening at the grassroots level. I really do want to stress the connection between work that’s being done by youth. That’s local and national levels with what’s happening internationally. So I think we’re kind of starting to see greater connections. I know what you mean, and I recently just participated in this forum, and I think that’s a great first step forward. I would also like to say that, you know, countries that are implementing youth to be part of their delegation and working towards consulting people meaningfully is also a great step. And now is a time when I would like to personally commend the Canadian delegation for doing this. They’ve given this opportunity to engage in these places and it’s all off the very high level and there’s a lot of expert knowledge here. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s a privilege to engage in a space like this, you know, it’s hard to access and many you might feel like imposter syndrome or they might feel like it’s even hard enough to find these opportunities. So I still feel like some of it might be a little bit tokenistic, but the ones that are really meaningful, engaging, they’re kind of hard to reach for the majority of it. So a lot of it is due to self-organized themselves.

Meryem: Yeah, even in Turkey as well, we have a participation from all over the world and they are a meaningfully active and participating in. And they they share their ideas and they gave us feedback. It’s like they really learned drug policies and they increased their advocacy skills. But here I would like to also mention that their experiences should be taken to a higher level. I mean, yes, we have this forum and we have different participants, but it should expand to the majority of young people. So this shouldn’t be limited to, you know, only a segment of young people. So yes, we have I mean, we need to make all of them actually meaningfully participate in those platforms. Not only in international level, but also the international level and regional level by providing them with these platforms that they can express themselves, they can learn from one another, but also we need to make them active in the in policy-making part 

Benedicta: The next question I have is: what should be the role of young people in drug policies?

Keelin: I think that young people can have a role at all parts of the policy process, and I think that there should be opportunities on the front lines to take in policies, but I think also in the input stage and into designing policies. What I saw at the youth forum with Hajar was really great to see an opportunity for young people to get together, especially internationally, to discuss policies. But it did feel very narrow at times as well, and I think that there can be a little bit more trust with what young people can discuss. And yeah, I think there’s a lot of assumptions made sometimes that what young people can handle, but young people are exposed to these things all the time, and they have so many thoughts and so much meaningful inputs to get it. So I think having trust in that process as well, and I think making them safe spaces for young people too can be so great. So I think having more young people in a safe and meaningful spaces to have input into policy would be so fantastic. But I think having young people in front line as well is so great. But since these policies are going to affect us, yeah, there needs to be more representation for young people. 

Hajar: I wanna stress for young people across all levels of governance: first, don’t underestimate the power and capacity of young people to contribute to your policy process–this is especially for any policymakers in the audience. Second, make sure young people are included un the education/prevention process, targeting the “end users” because at the end of the day one might have ideas that don’t actually match young people’s needs, understandings, and desires.

Mayank: I think the only major thing that needs to be done when it comes to the role of youth is engaging in automatic consultation and deliberation when it comes to treatment prevention and getting support. Because I will be taking on my own experience when working with the National Strategic Plan in India because a lot of the the year of growth are youths, but the people who are handling the project and even the bureau educators as well. So I think it’s it’s also hierarchical in a way because for certain economic group, that might be true. And as you grow up in the hierarchy, things and challenges and these changes.

Meryem: Well, I think that young people should be informed and provided with information at the very beginning. I’m repeating this, but they also have to be integrated. I mean, we all know that they have to be integrated in the decision making processes within an institutional framework, not just by word, but they need to be really meaning fully integrated in these processes and their participation should be consistent. We shouldn’t take their opinions from one point and then leave it in the other. They their voices and their opinions and experiences should be consistent in that regard. And they are they should be provided these platforms to indicate their needs, as well as their insights on how to contribute and how to better, you know, contribute to public health. And this platform should also process national regional international structures are connected to these structures so that their ideas could be taken pliable to policy making processes.=

Benedicta: Thank you. The last question is, how can policymakers and governments better address the needs of young people?

MeryemWell, policy makers and governments should incorporate young people to mention of these policy processes and provide access to platforms both through public platforms, but also to non-governmental organizations. I mean, there are a lot of different divergence by governments, organizations that are already doing these events and creating these platforms, and they should also enhance and support these NGOs in terms of youth participation. And we have this [sic] phenomenon. I should be also questioned because we don’t really have young people at the position of decision making. So young people should be at that position so that they can better address the needs of themselves and that they can really meaningfully indicate their experience, the insights.

Mayank: I think replacing the approach or adopting a more pragmatic approach when it comes to youth instead of always giving moralistic or value-oriented discourses because I’m talking in terms of abstinence and when abstinence approaches are being adopted, it’s much better to learn about the issues and challenges. And I think one of the following points will be encouraging parliamentarians and legislators to guide youths and young people to make changes in policy. Because I think as as I say, the mention of this privilege of having this call or being able to discuss this is confined to a particular group of people. So loosen that boundary I think we now we need to sort of bridge the gap and let young people in and then guide policies. And lastly would be it’s a more appropriate programmatic language. But then learning and practicing community monitoring system of social auditing, this is something which is done in macro programs in India.

Keelin: I think the best thing that governments and policymakers could do is just to have regular input from young people and just to make it regular practice to ensure that there’s input from young people at all stages of the policy process, rather than in the when trying to make a statement about it or just to yet make a big show about involving young people. But just to make it regular practice could make such a difference, I think. Yes, I would say, and that’s probably the most important thing I could do. And to get a broad range of young people as well, not just to select, people that might have the most experience. I feel very lucky to have a research position in drug policy, but there is so many young people that don’t have those positions and would have so many meaningful things to say. So yeah, getting a really broad range of people would be great.

Hajar: I’ll break my answer into two. The first is on the part of maybe national or maybe the municipal government and policymakers, I think really just sees this concerted effort to provide these educational opportunities that will teach you about substance use. On the part of government and schools providing this education and supporting the collaboration of community leaders, youth, people with lived experiences, there’s all this great knowledge at the community level and it’s not really being translated over to what’s being taught in schools and to our most vulnerable populations, children. So the goal is really to spread awareness of the severity of drug abuse, but then also the complexity of drug addiction while still being compassionate and focusing on stigma reduction and harm-reduction. And I hope a space that required us all to link it back to what can be done, maybe on an international level. So first is really to create these meaningful spaces for decision making at the UN, and we kind of have this, but really just an extension or amplification of what’s going on right now. So meaningfully engaging youth from country delegations. You might have heard that word thrown around a lot, “meaningful engagement”. I love it, but it can be content just because it means so many different things to people. So I really want to stress, just ask what does meaningful mean to you? What do you want to see? And then also maybe even hopefully seeing resolutions that prioritize youth engagement because we’ve heard resolutions that focus on youth health and wellbeing. And that’s great. But how about youth engagement? What do you do around that and really standardize it in some, some form? Also, like I mentioned earlier, it’s a great opportunity to be here, and I feel like it’s great to meet all of these panelists, and I feel like we’ll have great conversations going in the future. And I was very excited for that. But I also know that it’s harder to get these opportunities. Maybe just if you’re a partner, country, delegation or policymaker in some capacity and you’re interested in this process, are you interested in doing anything with you? I think it’s making it really accessible and transparent. You know, where can you find a national job board? Does it like this obscure email that they’re going to get if they subscribe to your web page? You know, how can they find out about these opportunities? How could you target them when you’re looking to put these opportunities online? So you have heard this already but youth are eager and really hungry for these because of these opportunities, especially in light of the pandemic sitting at home for two years. We have a lot of thoughts. We have a lot that we want to say.

Benedicta: This discussion was highly insightful and I’ll now read a question from the chat: How to include youth from marginalized communities?

Keelin: And this might be more specific to my country, but I’m sure it can be applied to a lot of places as well. I think First Nations Australians are very overrepresented in the prison system and the criminal justice system more broadly. So, I think involving First Nations peoples and especially First Nations Young Peoples would be such an important thing. And I think that could be done in a really meaningful way and in a consistent way. So I think that would be one way to get it more marginalized people involved. But also, the youth forum, I’m not sure how it works everywhere, but I just went through a selection process and obviously only one person is chosen, which you know, can be really great in some situations. But having other opportunities where it’s just open board or whether there are more people that can be selected and yet more diverse people selected as well. I think that that’s really important.

Hajar: So couple of things. I think if you’re going to be engaging with youth, I think it’s a great first step. But I really think if you’re going to do it, try and do it right as best as possible, obviously. So one thing that’s the kind of work in the past is compensation. It’s a difficult topic, and I think it’s not always what I think needs to be said, even though it’s not as accessible for some diverse youth to attend these meetings and to make it more accessible and more affordable and kind of worth the time. You’re saying that you’re prioritizing their time. So I think not just for the time, but their effort, their knowledge and experience of that goes into what? I think it really plays out in the long term because they’re setting up these standards and these frameworks, and hopefully it’ll carry on for years as they are able to compensate them either monetarily or with like volunteer hours or with other opportunities in some capacity. And then also fostering these respectful spaces, you know, be mindful of who’s on your team. And maybe don’t monitor their online presence, but know what they’re saying and what they stand for. So things that have worked for me in the past and what I’ve seen either, you know, I’ve participated in these spaces or even facilitated them myself, And I think really starting off with the land acknowledgment, you know, acknowledging those land and the caretakers of this land. I think that’s a good way. And the first step, you know, not to be tokenistic, but really just saying like this is our perspective. This is it’s a way to ground ourself. And then also being respectful pronouns and name pronunciations. Things like that just being respectful and kind of being mindful of their time. If you’re saying “Oh, we’re going to eat for an hour”, then meet for an hour. So, just a couple of small things, but hopefully that’ll that’ll help.

Mereym:  I was just going to say, yes, those little things, those trivial things are actually really important, like you said. I mean, the empathy here is the key. When you when you approach it, I mean the person.

Benedicta: The next question: where we work, schools and universities are still operating remotely. So it’s hard us to reach out to the youth and give them opportunities to engage and mobilize. On the online sphere we found that more and more often than not, they’re uninterested in participating. What would be some good ideas or tips you might have to consider interest on building a space or creating events or engagements and discussions? 

Mayank:  It’s very hard to make an online presentation or show an online instruction more engaging. But nonetheless, we are in such a situation that nothing can be done. But interactions could be increased by using online platforms, by then quizzes or games. And there are a lot of tools online like these tools that can be totally community tools and everyone can jump up and it’s like a group activity. So that sort of helps people stay connected during the conference. So I think that’s the best, I think in an online setup I can think of for engagement.

BenedictaLet’s proceed to closing remarks:

Meryem:  Overall, despite the divergent approaches, divergent different backgrounds we have here, we have one thing in common: we know that young people are inevitable part of achieving sustainable health policy. So the one thing that we have here is a we need to hear their voices and we need to make them meaningfully engaged in every part of this making process. And we need to provide them safe places to discuss and to share their ideas so that their participation in these processes will be nearly impossible for us to achieve SDGs and to make sustainable policies in terms of public health. So this would be one thing that we all have in common.

Keelin: I echo what Mariam’s said. I think the one thing we have in common is that we all want more participation from young people, and I think it actually shocked me a lot how similar all of our views are. I thought they would be more diverse. I think the amount of empathy that we all have really means that our views are more similar than what I would have thought. And I think that’s the same for a lot of young people. And I think getting more young people involved in these spaces could really improve policy processes. 

Mayank: I think we are all here to establish a collaboration, a partnership and a dialog and let people know that we exist. So I think that’s what we have in common now. One last thing I’d like to say: please stop treating us as beneficiaries. Treat us as stakeholders.

Hajar: We have different perspectives on how we should go about doing things, but I think we have common goals. At the end of the day, this is a list of things that we really want to get across. So I’ll just re-emphasize our common goals. Ideas should be less “for youth” and more “by youth. Youth have their own thoughts and experiences that should be represented in some capacity. And then also just like around drug addiction and drug use and harm-reduction stigma, the point of it is to live prosperous lives in spite of everything that’s going on. How do you really prioritize health and well-being and how can you incorporate you get to share that vision, because people say that we’re the leaders of tomorrow, whatever that might mean. But we’re here today, so if you’re not going to give us the opportunity, I think we’re just going to forge right ahead. So you might as well include us anyways.

Benedicta: Thank you. Also, we all have been witnessing the breakdown of human rights in Ukraine. A lot of people dying, women and children. This is all at this time, just saying that we stand with Ukraine. OK, I’d like to welcome Iulia at this time:

Iulia: Hi, this is Iulia, I am the global fellow for students for sensible drug policy, and I’m here today to just thank everyone that came here to bring out different perspectives to youth engagement and the common challenges that unite us in advocacy space. What you’ve seen today is many different perspectives, although it might not look like that, the speakers that we have here come from have different policy orientations. They have different approaches to how maybe we should deal with the drug with drug policies, then how what they should look like. They come from different countries and some of them have been in the youth forum, have had interactions with their country delegations and some of them are with civil society and have seen that aspect of engagement in international fora. I think the message here is that we need to do more as an international community and with our national governments to make sure that youth are meaningfully represented, but that the idea of meaningful representation should be very much defined by youth and that we need to consult with them on what like those mechanisms should look like. SSDP will be launching today a letter to UNODC, and in that letter, we summarize some of the challenges that have been also noted in today’s side event, and we’re hoping that it can lead to more positive change and more meaningful mechanisms for young people to get engaged.

Before we conclude, I would very much like to thank our co-sponsors that have really made this possible. We’re really happy to have the Canadian delegation supporting us today and providing us with Hajar and her experience as a Youth Forum delegate. And also, we’re happy to have Kileen here as well, giving her side of the story. I think it’s always good to have to say to Youth Forum delegates to just let let us know how their experience was like. I would also like to thank Youth Rise and Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy for their support. And also, we’re really grateful to the Turkish Green Crescent that have been so kind to collaborate with us and to bring Mariam, who has been amazing again, has given us so many wonderful insights. We’re really thankful for everyone that was here, and I hope that once, as SSDP launches the letter to the executive director of UNODC today, you’ll be able to share it in your networks so that we can get a response and we can we can see some meaningful engagements. I also encourage our new policy makers and representatives of country delegations here today to really think about how they can incorporate these representatives in their country delegations and how they can give them more meaningful spaces for engagement. Whether that is being a Youth Forum representative or making a speech at the plenary and participating actively in the negotiations of the Committee of the Whole. I think that’s something that we should all look at more deeply and more and more in in more depth. Thank you so much, everyone. It’s been great to see everyone, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the proceedings of the CND and I do hope that the resolutions that come out will really be meaningful and be reflective of the need for youth engagement in high level policymaking and of course, in national settings and local settings as well. Thank you. 

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