Home » Side event: Moving towards drug policy that improves well-being and aligns with Indigenous knowledge and practice

Side event: Moving towards drug policy that improves well-being and aligns with Indigenous knowledge and practice

Organized by New Zealand Drug Foundation with the support of Australia, Canada, OHCHR, IDPC, Harm Reduction International, Open Society Foundations, the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council, the International Indigenous Drug Policy Alliance, Te Rau Ora and the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation of Canada


  • Gilbert Taurua, Moderator, Aotearoa (New Zealand)
  • Tracey Potiki, Aotearoa (New Zealand)
  • Dr Ester Tailfeathers, Canada
  • Yilmer Valenzuela Mosquera, Colombia
  • Scott Wilson, Australia

Traditional Maori welcome sung by Tracey Potiki.

Gilbert Taurua: Welcome all to this event on drug policy to improve well-being and is aligned with indigenous knowledge and practice. Thank you to all cosponsors; Open Society Foundations, New Zealand Drug Foundation with the support of Australia, Canada, OHCHR, IDPC, Harm Reduction International, the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council, the International Indigenous Drug Policy Alliance, Te Rau Ora and the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation of Canada. We launched the indigenous initiative in 2022 in Sydney. Indigenous peoples across the globe have strong ties to the natural environment in which they live, a shared culture and a multitude of common issues.

Tracey Potiki, Aotearoa (New Zealand): What I said at the opening was we welcome all and pay respects to the local people. My name is Tracy Potiki and I come from the beautiful lands of Aotearoa. I personally struggle with substances and all the chaos that surrounds them. I run an indigenous drug policy group in Aotearoa. Colonialist agendas of oppression and indigenous people who have weathered this carry a profound sense of duty. Systematic racism and violent systems compound the existing trauma faced by indigenous people. The war on drugs in Aotearoa has excluded, marginalized and criminalized my people. Power resides within us and we refuse to be pawns in navigating systems that oppresses us. Solace cannot be found in government institutions, but we chose a path of indigenous leadership, of community leadership. I would like to quote Audre Lourde “Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves”. When we talk about human rights discourse must include indigenous people. Our resilience lies in our ability to shift towards our self determination, culture, community. Our culture must honor the diversity of Maori peoples. We chart a new course propelled by forging new futures. Our knowledge is not the issue here, but our self-determination. Mo tatou, a mo ka uri a muri ake nei – for us and our children after us.

Gilbert Taurua: We are proud of all the work you do in our country, Tracey. We have government leaders here in the room from New Zealand and it’s important that they hear these words. I’d like to welcome to Yilmer Valenzuela Mosquera. We have live interpreters who will translate from Spanish to English.

Yilmer Valenzuela Mosquera: Hello, my name is Yilmer Valenzuela Mosquera. Calling everyone in, welcoming and acknowledging the ancestors from this palace and the 4 winds. I want to start by express my concern over the death and murder of our social leaders in Colombia. I want to acknowledge the massacre of Cajibo in 2000 (shared link: rutasdelconflicto.com/masacres/cajibio-2000). The area where I’m from is known as the ‘windbox’ and sits at a very high elevation. Coffee, coca and sugar cane are the main products grown here. Multinational companies have a strong presence here, but only in an extractive way. My area is diverse and contains both indigenous and afro- Colombian people. The municipality has been hit by many conflicts since ‘70s. Many armed groups exist in the region along with armed criminal networks and egregious human rights abuses are being committed. For the past 40 years there has been a very strong presence from both the FARC and the government military.

According to official statistics the municipality has 360 hectares of coca, but according to my own estimates there is around 5,000 hectares, however, the cultivating families are not in charge of the commercial production. Due to neglect from the state on roads, health, education (and more). We have been driven to grow coca. This is due to lack of opportunities for a better quality of life for our families; lack of access of land; land ownership is concentrated being concentrated in the hands of a few; and, the exploitation of the lumber industries–and other extractive industries–do not bring investment to the area. Why is there a struggle for the land? What one can do in 5 hectares of land for coffee, you can do on one hectare with cocoa. The market forces us into coca. Why did we begin organizing within our community? Because of human rights from the military, lack of economic stability, and to bring peace to our community. For folks here in places like in the CND we talk about illicit growing and use. All of the world is involved in both production and consumption. What is going to happen to us with (drug) regulation? As cultivators we believe in regulation but we need safeguards and reassurances that we’ve never had before to protect our livelihoods and communities. We recognize that we, as cultivators can contribute to drug problems but during the transitional period to drug relations we need assistance. Thank you!

Dr Ester Tailfeathers, Canada: We need to acknowledge the struggle for land rights by indigenous people around the world. I would like to talk about indigenous knowledge and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow actually did his research in my community, but he got it wrong! The Western perspective is individual rights privilege one lifetime scope analysis, I.e Belongingness and love needs feeds into self actualization. What my community believes is self actualization feeds into community. We have an expansive concept of time and multiple dimensions of reality. Colonization has disconnected us from land, language, ceremony, traditional economy, traditional health practices, culture, ceremony and community. It has been replaced with trauma, poverty, colonial health policy, which contributes to a complete power imbalance between indigenous peoples and the colonizing forces. Synthetic opioids arrived in North America in 2014, prior to that fentanyl hadn’t been seen before. In 2019 we saw opioid mortality skyrocket in First Nations communities due to closure of drug consumption rooms and harm reduction services (due to shifting political environments). The fatal overdose poisoning deaths are mainly alcohol, yet there is a steady rise in fentanyl. The 3 big killers among First Nations are alcohol, fentanyl and methamphetamine. It takes a village to build a complete continuum of care; prevention, harm reduction, detox, outpatiant support and primary care, treatment based on community needs, aftercare, supportive housing and social determinants. It is important to note this is not linear. People slip on and off the continuum of care. Naloxone was started without approval and stopped opioid overdose immediately. Even though it stopped deaths immediately, a local health official was fired as it hadn’t been officially authorized. Our Chief wrote a letter and the health official was reinstated. When we talk about prevention, we refer to positive childhood experiences (PCEs). This includes; ability to talk with family about feelings, felt experience that family is supportive in difficult times, enjoyment in participation in community traditions, feeling of belonging in high school, feeling of being supported by friends, having at-least two non-parent adults to genuinely care, feeling safe and protected by an adult at home. Harm reduction is a necessary discussion as it saves lives. It includes CPR, naloxone and overdose reversal, safe injecting sites / overdose prevention sites, information of safer drug use, needle and syringe programs, opioid agonist therapy (OAT)—which has been very effective in our community. Harm reduction also includes housing and drug checking services. There is also an important need for basic social support, which includes help accessing ID, accessing temporary income support, accessing disability and housing support and family reunification. Physical withdrawal from harmful substances needs staff, policy and protocols, licensing, space and beds. What has been most the successful in the way of treatment for our community is a combination of cultural and ceremonial ways with support of western medical models, as well as reconnecting with land and community to find a sense of belonging. Food security is a huge issue in our community, especially for those not stably housed. Community support and social determinants are crucial. We need to remember what got us here in the first place, address trauma and poverty, eliminate stigma and the biggest challenge is to help change our communities.

Scott Wilson, Australia. Good afternoon, I’m Scott Wilson, CEO of the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council in Australia. I have a history of polydrug use and I spent my 18th birthday in jail struggling with drug issues. There are over 600 million people worldwide that identify as indigenous people. This is approximately 6 – 7% of the global population. Approximately 300 million people worldwide use drugs. In 2018 in the HOSW Conference in Sydney, my organization (Australia) along with the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation (Canada) and Te Rau Ora (Aotearoa) launched the IIDPA. There are approximately 600,00 drug-related deaths worldwide or one person every 40 seconds. 8,000+ Canadians are now dying annually (25 per day) from drug overdose, 81% which is attributable to Fentanyl. Vancouver is 4x higher than other cities across Canada. In the US there are 110,000 deaths annually and this has been increasing 14% annually. In Aotearoa (New Zeland) there has been a 54% increase in overdose deaths. In Australia more people die from drug overdose than are killed in road accidents. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 4-5 times more likely to die of overdose than non-indigenous Australians. In international fora, such as the CND, we are silent or rely on governments to raise the issues. Last year the Colombian President called for the ending of the war on drugs and to treat it as a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Imagine what $1 trillion USD could been spent on by the US alone, rather than the war on drugs. Recently, the World Health Assembly directed the Director General to develop a Global Action Plan for the health of indigenous people to present it to the 79th World Health Assembly in 2026. I would just like to share some background on the IIDPA. It was launched in 2018 at the HOSW Eight Gathering and we submitted an Indigenous Intervention to the 2019 Special Session on Drugs and presented on Indigenous-led harm reduction at the 66th CND last year (2023). It is guided and supported by the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council (Australia), the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation (Canada) and Te Rau Ora (Aotearoa). We work to foster an international collective indigenous voice on drug policy. Promote indigenous- led approaches to drug demand and harm reduction and challenge the war on drugs orthodoxy, and finally, increase the visibility of the effects of criminal justice led approaches. Earlier this year we received funding from OSF to provide seed funds IIDPA to enable to get indigenous delegates here to the 67th CND. Criminal justice approaches target indigenous peoples disproportionately. The leading cause of death in indigenous youth is suicide. We need to be included in the planning, development and implementation stage of all projects governments are currently working on. We need a seat at the table throughout the entire process, not to be fed crumbs under the table. Indigenous solutions led by indigenous peoples have shown to have better out comes

Yilmer Valenzuela Mosquera, Colombia: Yesterday I was discussing drug related issues in Colombia and I was meant to read this out this poem to pay tribute to the indigenous leader Juan Tama de la Estrella who left us in the ‘70s. He was a spiritual leader and a community leader (reads a poem in Spanish and native language); In the life of nature, it fell to me to grow, to be a star above and to be a comet and to come down to my people. This was the life I learned to live. My life is now part of the sun, the umbilical cord wraps around the temple of my head, it is through my eyes forward to know both the current time and the future time. (…)

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