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Toronto joins global call for drug policy reform

Support. Don’t Punish holds first event in Toronto

by Iris Robin

Left-Right: Kelly Pflug-Back, Shriya Hari, Donna May. [Credit: Doug Gill]
Left-Right: Kelly Pflug-Back, Shriya Hari, Donna May. [Credit: Doug Gill]
Attendees march on Queen Street. [Credit: Doug Gill]
Attendees march on Queen Street. [Credit: Doug Gill]
Attendees march on Queen Street. [Credit: Doug Gill]
Attendees march on Queen Street. [Credit: Doug Gill]

This year, Toronto joined 155 other cities around the world in observing a Global Day of Action with the Support. Don’t Punish (SDP) campaign, which advocates for drug policies that prioritize health and human rights.

Around 50 people gathered at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in front of the Drug Users’ Memorial to listen to speeches, connect with each other, and share personal experiences. In a gesture of reclamation, the event took place on June 26, the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking as designated by the United Nations (UN). On such a day, some UN member states have held public beatings and executions of those convicted of drug-related offences.

SDP has identified three priorities for its global campaign. First, the 10 by 20 campaign, which aims to see 10% of money used to fund the war on drugs redirected towards harm reduction services and policies by the year 2020; secondly, the abolition of the death penalty for drug offences; thirdly, to call on the UN for a meaningful conversation on the global situation on drug policy at its General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, to be held in April 2016. Locally, the event called for an end to the overdose epidemic in Toronto.

The event featured four speakers, one from each of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP), and Jac’s Voice.

The “war on drugs”

To Kelly Pflug-Back, Outreach and Community Organizing Intern with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) and one of the event’s lead organizers, the “war on drugs” is the criminalization of substances regarded as illicit and stigmatized. “A lot of it started with immigration control,” explained Pflug-Back. “The criminalization of opium started with trying to control Chinese immigration, and the control of cannabis started with trying to control immigration from South America, so it’s all steeped in racism and anti-immigration policy.”

“It’s just become this really moralistic issue. When you see where it originated in history, you can see how biased and arbitrary it is. It’s not at all beneficial for society and it’s not at all actually improving people’s health, improving social cohesion or reducing crime. It actually does the opposite of those things.”

“To me, the war on drugs means that society has the money to criminalize drug use, but not to treat it,” said Hannah*, a parent in attendance. Hannah’s son began using substances at age 14 and was arrested for his activities.

“Using drugs shouldn’t be a crime,” Hannah said, adding that she believes the function of criminal law is to prevent people from hurting each other, not themselves. “Besides, 80–90% of substance users can use drugs without addiction problems.”

“The war on drugs is like the war on communities. It creates all this violence on the ground. It creates this criminalization, it creates this suffering and a lot of death,” Pflug-Back said.

Why do people use?

After losing her daughter Jacquilynne as a result of her substance abuse nearly three years ago, Donna May founded Jac’s Voice in her name. According to May, Jacquilynne had undiagnosed mental illnesses and found that drugs calmed the voices in her head.

May indicated that addiction had deep roots in her family's history. She has had to cope with it in one form or another her entire life.

“When you get to know why people get hooked on substances, it’s more understandable,” May explained. “I mean some do it for the simple pleasure of doing it, but many use them as coping mechanisms.”

Nazlee Maghsoudi, Knowledge Translation Manager at the ICSDP and member of the Board of Directors with CSSDP, noted in her speech that drug use is often a symptom of underlying issues, such as homelessness, poverty, assault, and sexual violence. “We need to look at the reasons why people are using these illicit substances in instead of saying ‘oh they need a police officer,’ or ‘oh they need a doctor.’”

People who deal drugs face similar issues and deal drugs out of necessity. Pflug-Back spoke to the Toronto Media Co-Op about her time in jail, where she talked to drug dealers. “We have this myth of who the drug dealers are, preying on the vulnerable. But a lot of drug dealers are single moms who can’t work regular hours, or women who are trying to leave abusive relationships and need a way of making money fast, or people, who, because of structural reasons, don’t have access to the same job training,” she said.

Effects of poor drug policy

In her speech, May spoke about the mistakes she had made as a mother before her daughter showed her where she was going wrong. “When I was growing up, ‘Just Say No’ was very popular. It didn’t provide any ability to say why, or anything. That was just the answer. Say no and just stop it.” That was the approach that May attempted to take with her daughter. May realized that her behaviour exacerbated the difficulties that Jacquilynne was already facing. “She had the courage to explain to me how that harmed her, and teach me how I could have done better.”

May also discussed the stigma that she faced when trying to get help for Jacquilynne. May was in charge of her daughter’s medication, and dealt with her cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Without the support of a case manager and formal psychiatric care, May did everything herself. Since her daughter was wanted for attempted murder, May also had to navigate the judicial system.

“She couldn’t possibly go through all the trials and tribulations of any of that without giving up her life. Being in jail would have killed her… Nobody wanted to hear from mum. They thought they knew best.”

Pflug-Back spoke to the lack of support, supervision, and compassion in prisons for the violence that is done to substance users when they are incarcerated right off the streets. “As someone who has been incarcerated, I know what it looks like to have people punished instead of supported when they need a helping hand and to get handcuffs slapped on them instead,” she said. “People are often forced into cold turkey withdrawals in ways that are incredibly violent to their body, in ways that make them lose control of their faculties with no medical supervision and this can actually be fatal.”

Pflug-Back stated that, prison staff often don’t check to see what dose of methadone a person is on and don’t bother to see what opioids someone has been taking. “Prison is an environment that re-traumatizes people and it strips away your humanity. It’s supposed to strip away your humanity. It’s not meant to be a rehabilitative environment. And until we start questioning why we criminalize drug users and why were using the punitive justice system in general, we’re going to continue having widespread human rights violations.”

Shriya Hari, Community Development and Volunteer Coordinator at ASAAP, spoke to the failure of drug policies and services to cater to marginalized groups of intersecting identities.

"It's not behaviour alone, but social context that affects someone's health risks. Environment or systemic structures influence health outcomes,” Hari said.

“Within this context, criminalization exacerbates drug related issues and ends up marginalizing people who don’t know how to begin to access [services]. There’s so little data on immigrant populations who are incarcerated and who are also drug-using here.”

Hari said that mainstream spaces and discourse on drug policy, harm reduction, and sexual health are not always presented in culturally relevant ways to South Asian communities. “This is a gap that we hope to address through our work,” she said of the ASAAP’s purpose. “As an AIDS service organization that specifically caters to South Asian populations, we approach sexual health issues from a social determinants framework, and so harm reduction is critical.”

Hari also spoke about issues of language barriers, racism, sexism, queerphobia, and fear of AIDS, that prevents South Asians from accessing services, along with the particular manifestation of guilt and shame.

Richard Elliott, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, touched upon similar issues, highlighting that the government’s refusal to implement needle and syringe programs in prisons harms aboriginal people disproportionately.

“There’s an overrepresentation of aboriginal people in Canadian prisons. When you deny healthcare to prisoners, it disproportionately affects aboriginal people,” Elliott said. “There are high levels of substance abuse among aboriginal women especially. When you deny clean injection equipment to people, you’re denying it to aboriginal women.”

“It is very clear that drugs did not kill my friends,” said Pflug-Back, who has lost people close to her to substance use. “Bad drug policies killed my friends. People are culpable in those deaths. It did not happen in a vacuum. A car that’s parked can’t kill someone. A bad driver kills someone. Our government, our policy officials, are the drivers behind policy that’s killing people needlessly,” she said.

What they are fighting for

Harm reduction is the practice of enabling substance users to use drugs with less risk to their health. Harm reduction strategies may include spreading education about different types of drugs and their effects, providing drug testing kits to allow users to check that they are consuming what they want to consume, and providing safe sites and clean equipment for users. All of the speakers present advocated the benefits of harm reduction over the current “war on drugs” strategy.

Maghsoudi spoke to the rhetoric that politicians often use, which revolves around protecting youth. She said that drug war messaging often doesn’t work, and that cannabis is now more accessible in high schools than ever before.

“Those who choose to use substances, their health is just as important,” Maghsoudi said. “I really encourage people to think about this rhetoric. They say ‘we’re doing it to protect young people’ then the conversation stops. Let’s accept the premise that we want to protect young people and lets examine it. A strictly regulated legal market where adults are allowed to consume with strictly legal age limitations, that would be much more effective,” she said.

Pflug-Back echoed the desire for the decriminalization of illicit substances, noting that options for alternative business models for cannabis are beginning to crop up. “I think that it does have a lot of potential as something entrepreneurs can do,” she said. “With cannabis becoming less criminalized, we see a lot of pretty cool alternative business models that are community- based and often co-operative and that have a social benefit. You’re helping people get paid, and you’re helping people with illnesses.”

Pflug-Back was careful to distinguish between decriminalization and legalization. “I’m often more in favour of decriminalizing rather than legalizing, because I don’t fully trust the government to be able to regulate substances ethically.”

For her part, May is working with an organization called R U Fed Up, which is holding a rally calling for the availability of naloxone, an opiate overdose reversal drug, at Queen’s Park on September 29 and 30, 2015. According to May, naloxone is safer to use than an epi-pen. “There’s no-reason why it shouldn’t be in everyone’s medicine cabinets and that’s what we’re rallying for, to make it widely distributed.”

May has also organized mumsDU, a group of Canadian mothers who have lost children to substance use, and who are travelling across the country in the hopes of finding other families who have been affected by bad drug policy. May intends to gather their voices and stories and present them to the government.

“Until we open up and understand what the problem really is, and it’s not substance use. At all. Until we can understand that and deal with the underlying issues, we won’t gain the trust of our children or our loved ones. It just won’t happen,” May said.

“As a mother of a substance user was stigmatized so I can only imagine what my daughter went through trying to get help. Unnecessary and should never have happened. So that’s why I’m speaking up. I want change. By being open and honest about everything that has happened, it gives permission for others in the same situations to speak up.”

*Name changed at interviewee’s request

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Sebastian Yūe is a Toronto-based reporter. They grew up in Brighton, England, before moving to Canada to study English literature and modern languages at the University of Toronto. Sebastian is now completing their Master of Journalism at Ryerson University. When Sebastian isn't writing, they are probably watching Star Wars.

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