Side event: “Nothing about us without us”: Opportunities to involve youth in drug policy

Organized by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy with the support of Australia, Canada, the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Youth RISE, Sensible Drug Policy Australia and the International Drug Policy Consortium

Liv, CSSDP. Let’s get sensible. CSSDP supports drug education efforts to provide realistic cannabis education through peer to peer services and guidance. We explore conversations about weed with young people. We offer creative resources to promote conversations that are evidence based on cannabis use. We have many booklets on cannabis and harm reduction. I commend Canada for involving youth voices, I am part of the Canadian delegation here. There is nothing that can be done about us without us here. When you look at how the evidence has evolved, you can see how you have to involve us there. There are many parents and youth who are willing to start the conversation. So we have Guiding Principles on Cannabis Education too. Many resources are translated into different languages. I’m so glad because we can have access to these services for those who don’t speak English or French. being on the Canadian delegation has provided me with the opportunity to offer advice to member states, especially as a queer and disabled person. I use drugs and I’m here and I have something to say about it. If you don’t have the space to do this, youth will never be able or willing to get involved. So it’s great to have these conversations. We have in-person engagement, it’s hard because of the pandemic, but we created local parties where people like to hang out. We connected with people where they are at. PWUD don’t want to go half way across town to access information, so we have to go where they are. We also have loads of online engagement, with Instagram, social media, TikTok, YouTube, in English and French and other languages. We also have a podcast, we have roundtables specified for diversities. And then we report back to Health Canada which funds us. We’re currently looking to fundraise. We have a fundraiser going on with t-shirts, posters, etc. ‘This is your brain on drug education’.

Humberto Rotundo, Youth RISE, Peru. I am an elder user, I a now 31 years old, according to UNODC I have one more year of being youth! I want to share my impression of where we are at and where we are going as a youth movement. In general, the youth movement has achieved representation: they want us in the picture, they want to listen to us and will even take our recommendations, but it’s not enough. We need protagonism in decision making. It was an ambitious goal to achieve representation and here we are! We should go further. As a Peruvian, I am a bit pessimistic for the future. There is shrinking space for civil society and for youth, especially for drug policy. We must find intersections with other subjects: e.g. housing, sports, etc. I also want to share some good practices I have found in the past few years. I want to highlight Youth RISE’s and SSDP’s role there to keep persons who are not youth anymore within the movement. There is fast transitions when people are no longer ‘youth’. But we’ve remained youth-led, and that’s important. On Sunday, we had a youth strategy meeting, thanks to support from IDPC. After many years of support from them, we managed to identify our needs and problems in the drug policy movement: burnouts, need for more training, capacity building and internships. The fact that we identified those issues means we’ve come a long way. What has made me hopeful was the Youth Forum at CND. We met with people from the prevention and abstinence and recovery aisle. I was expecting clashes, but we came to common conclusions. We agreed we needed to be together to focus on youth participation. This made me hopeful, I wasn’t expecting that. If we want to make policy makers build on these practices going forward, we must make a lot of noise. The only way we can attract demand and activate pressure, we must show we’re a united front, not just harm reductionists. And we’ve achieved some of that, especially with the fact that there has been several presentations from youth. I am a youth who uses drugs, and that’s even harder to have a seat at the table. And this is something we should work towards changing that. The youth drug policy movement must move beyond representation and towards protagonism.

Giadai, from Australia. I am here to share my experience in participating in the Youth Forum. It’s an opportunity for young people to share their perspectives on drug policy and prevention. I work with young people in Australia with young students on social competencies in schools. Getting the opportunity to learn from other young people from different countries in the Youth Forum was important. Learning from expertise in this area was also important. I focus on mental health, so learning from other experts on how this is connected to social and emotional well being and prevention is really important. The Youth Forum as really fun. More collaboration between the CND and the Youth Forum would be nice to see to increase expertise in the space. It felt very ‘anti-drugs’ though, coming from a harm reduction space so would be great to hear more from that sphere. The opportunities have to be supported. Young people are just trying to fit in, in the world. If they don’t have guidance or support, it’s really hard. Constantly being rejected or not being seen for their abilities, they will be uninspired, won’t want to engage and will have no sense of belonging. So by allowing us to have a seat at the table, you increase our emotional wellbeing and support the next generation. This experience has been really inspirational for me.

Charity, from Zimbabwe. 

Roisin. Where would you begin to engage with better engaging young people?

Liv. This starts at government level. And we need to be paid. Being paid and being able to support our families is a big aspect of being recognised and able to engage. It’s also a big mental health thing.

Humberto. It is a money thing! Many of us started as volunteers, did a great job, and then they go to other youth areas better funded than drug policy. We also need internships for capacity building. These opportunities are scarce and they shouldn’t be.

Giadai. We need to start at community level. We need to have pathways for young people to have a seat at the table via our seniors too.

Roisin. What is the gold standard for young people’s engagement? What would the perfect role look like?

Humberto. Not only being listened to but also have a key protagonism role.

Giadai. I agree! I don’t work on policy development, but we need equity for young people to have a word to say no matter what age or community you come from. After that we can have a way to change the systems.

Questions and answers.

Arvi. It’s important to understand the difference between competition and companionship. Those working on prevention and from harm reduction do complementary work and that should be supported. We could build a common position and build on how we share available resources. If we want to get more funding, we should share the resources available and not lose momentum.

Roisin. Yes, we held a meeting two days ago where we began the conversations so I’m excited to hear more about that.

Question. I think it’s important for policy makers to hear you and assess how we better engage you in our work, so thank you all.

Andrew, Health Canada. I want to express my appreciation for your work Liv. Can you share with us what lessons you have learned for engaging with people who don’t approach substance use from a health perspective?

Humberto. Thank you for the question. Most perspectives about drug use, including those focusing on abstinence or recovery still come from a health perspective. Some of them don’t, but many colleagues from across the aisle do, just differently. In the Youth Forum, I had the pleasant surprise that I could equal my experience as a drug user with a person from recovery. Both sides of the aisle don’t get their stories told because of the stigma. We’re not so different from the advocacy part.

Roisin. In 2020, the UNODC had a bridge-sharing initiative and a lot of the time some elements of prevention are also harm reduction. We don’t necessarily use the same words but we agree despite the gaps in language. These conversations are very valuable among young people. Those from the other side were very keen to learn about fact based education, which is for me harm reduction. Talking about how people who use drugs should engage in drug education was something they completely agreed to, and for me this is harm reduction. Of course there are things we don’t agree on, but there is a lot of common understanding too. So that’s why the common position on youth is important as an initiative.

Liv. At the CND, sometimes member states also don’t agree on everything. That’s also the case for youth. When we come together and have that common position, it’s important because we fight for the things we think is critical, and this is about saving lives.

Comment. I’m an older person and I smoked cannabis for a long, long time. I’ve done my whole life with cannabis and I came here on Monday and I want to cry. I don’t know if member states are breathing the same air that we’re breathing. We were always told to stop using after university. But the reality is that it happens – but we are in the closet. We don’t say that we have kept using in our daily life. When I started to tell people that I was using cannabis some people reacted badly, they told me that I should be taking a prescription drug that is much stronger. But that is not what I need – I just need cannabis.

Ruby Lawlor. When it comes to thinking about best practices, we need to begin by the lack of data there is. There is no data about young people who use drugs. Such data should be sourced through organisations of young people who use drugs themselves. Without good data and advocacy we cannot do advocacy. We should make sure that the data is brought together in a way that it is also acceptable for UNODC, and then it is going to be a powerful tool for advocacy.

Roisin. Youth RISE has done a lot of work and research on youth and drug use and it’s so important as it’s hard to identify what’s going on.

Humberto. Echele la Cabeza in Colombia told me that talking about drugs is difficult, but it’s happening more and more. The things that doctors supply are sometimes not fit for someone, and sometimes something else is. So we need a set menu for people who use drugs, whatever fits you. I could just need a bit of heroin, but you might just be offered loads of pills. So we also need to move away from cannabis. We need to make sure that it’s not just cannabis that’s accepted, but other forms of use too.

Liv. That’s very true. We also need to come out to people and come out of the closet, including for people who are not a part of my age group: come out to your parents, your teachers, your doctor. Coming out like this is one of the most stigmatising thing you may do. I had cancer, etc. And I’ve been using cannabis since 2016. And it was hell. I had to go home every lunch to take my medication to avoid stigma. So now, being on one of these roundtables is one of the most important things I am doing. Using cannabis and any other drugs is incredibly difficult and scary, for example when you travel to criminalising countries. You can have paranoia on whether your suitcase smelled of weed when you travelled. The only way we can move forward is to talk about stigma and stigmatisation of youth.

Nick, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Being open with expectations and communications: when you go into the room and check who is going to be there: what will happen with the information afterwards (especially if there are recordings), have flexible meeting times, don’t expect people to come to you in the traditional ways of meeting, in terms of payments people don’t have credit cards and may need cash advance, not all people have clothing to come to these meetings, etc. So this is an ongoing learning.

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