Harm Reduction & Drug Prevention: Civil Society’s Search For Common Ground

SSDP and the CND

Author: Jacob Chagnon ’17

One of the most valuable aspects of attending the annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is the opportunity to collaborate with other civil-society groups. This work extends beyond attending the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)-sponsored programming–the plenary, the side events–and beyond our network of youth-focused civil society, Paradigma. While many Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are there as policy reformers, like Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), others represent prohibition interests, and many fall somewhere in the middle. Just as the world outside the UNODC consists of many different views on drugs and related topics, so do civil society members at CND.

All the more reason to work with these groups, share ideas and perspectives, and advocate our reform agenda. At the end of the day, civil society members are there because they want to be, and this energy carries lots of promise. We need to take advantage of our presence and energy in this space, especially after Orsi Fehér 16’, our European Global Fellow and leading member on UN affairs, was replaced on the VNGOC board by colleagues with a strong drug prevention background. The Vienna NGO Committee (VNGOC) is the formal body of the civil society members at the UNODC, and this year sponsored an event to promote productive discussion among civil society members at CND. The intention was to find “Common Ground”, with the topic to be on drug use prevention. The VNGOC event posting itself reads:

“For 2020, we would like to invite our members to engage in a constructive and informative conversation about drug use prevention

With the intention set, civil society members convened to do just that. The meeting started with a useful presentation about ineffective methods of prevention, such as testimonial and scare-tactic-based education. Members of our SSDP delegation used this opportunity to discuss positive alternatives, expanding beyond a focus just on prevention. In our statements, we introduced and emphasized the importance of harm-reduction and peer-to-peer strategies in youth education spaces; spaces which are typically dominated by ineffective, as well as prevention-oriented, strategies.

You can read transcriptions from two of our members, Jacob Chagnon 18’ and Róisín Downes 15’ (our Global Programs Coordinator), below!

Transcription of Jacob

“Hi everybody, my name’s Jacob, I’m from the US, I’m currently here with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and some of the ineffective youth prevention models resonated with me. It was just a few years ago, but growing up I had one of these testimony-based drug educations. I’ll return to that in a moment but, thinking about finding common ground: everybody agrees that youth are a centerpoint of this discussion and the role of primary prevention is obviously important as the best way to reduce the harms of taking drugs is to not take drugs at all. That said, that’s just not a realistic goal. Some messages which might work for a 7-year-old, 8-year-old, maybe 10-year-old, to just not take drugs, perhaps those are effective. But, by the time people reach their teenage years and young adulthood, they see through the messages that just claim if you take any drugs you’re going to go insane, or you’re a loser–they see through these messages, so they need a different type of approach.

There are actually multiple approaches which have been already implemented and are promising. For example, the Drug Policy Alliance has their “Safety First” curriculum, and likewise, SSDP has our “Just Say Know” program, and both are predicated on giving honest information to young adults: information about the effects of drugs; information about what will happen if you do take them; ways to minimize harm. And the thing is, this type of education does work–and it is a form of prevention in one sense because it doesn’t say to take drugs, or issue any value statements, and it still maintains that the safest way to minimize harm is to not take drugs at all. But the populations it also works for, are the people who choose to take drugs anyway, the students who are going to be taking drugs regardless, and I remember when I had this testimony-based education, it was effective…in making everyone kind of sad. But it wasn’t effective in changing the behavior of some of my peers who had already started smoking, drinking, and so on.

So, if you can get actual education which works for prevention and for the people who are already using, or will use drugs, that’s great. Moreover, this type of education is also effective for people who choose not to use drugs, or take drugs in any form, who remain abstinent, because they’re still going to have peers who are taking substances, and then they will be prepared for their peers as well.

I’d just like to leave with a question, considering that the testimonies and these other ineffective-based educations might work only for the people who regardless are not going to take drugs: when we have evidence-based and honest-based approaches which are peer-to-peer, which will work for the population who choose to remain abstinent, but will also work for the students who need to respond to more nuanced education, why don’t we use these approaches?”

Transcription of Róisín

“Hi I’m Róisín, I’m the global coordinator for SSDP, and I just wanted to follow up a little bit on the credibility of drug education. So, peer to peer programs have continuously shown to be very effective at communicating risks and harm-reduction methods and stuff like that, and I think some prevention methods might lose their credibility when they lead with really drastic or with the most severe side effects of using certain drugs. Then when people do use them, and they realize that’s not true, it discredits the body that’s speaking to them. And that’s why when it comes to stuff like peer to peer education, it’s so important because it’s coming from a trustworthy source, somebody you have credibility in, somebody who may have already used substances who can tell you what the situation is. So, the kind of “just say no” message can oftentimes really stigmatize those people who are already using drugs, and secondly, make the source not credible for the person who’s hearing the message.

I know this is about finding common ground, and we agree that the safest way to lower your risk of harm from using drugs is to not use them (because [in an illicit market] you can’t verify your substance). But, we don’t promote that “say no” objective, because the people we’re talking to do choose to incorporate harm-reduction methods, as the reality is that a lot of people are going to at least experiment.”

Transcriptions have been minorly edited for clarity. Find the formal transcripts here.