Youth at risk and youth on show – Young people’s engagement in global drug policy reform

By Beatrix Vas ’19, SSDP Global Development Intern & SSDP Budapest Chapter Leader

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared the 12th of August International Youth Day, intended to draw attention to and celebrate young people’s actions and achievements towards creating a better world for all.

The theme of International Youth Day 2020 is “Youth Engagement for Global Action,” highlighting “the ways in which the engagement of young people at the local, national and global levels is enriching national and multilateral institutions and processes, as well as draw lessons on how their representation and engagement in formal institutional politics can be significantly enhanced.”

As a community of young activists, SSDP members are fully aware of the value of young people’s involvement in decision- and policy making processes at all levels – and we also see the difficulties youth face while engaging in advocacy and formal politics.

Today, the United Nations highlights that we have only 10 years left to make the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development a reality. It is also important to highlight that the Sustainable Development Goals, including ending poverty and ensuring everyone’s right to health is respected, are virtually impossible to achieve unless we end the War on Drugs.

Young people, including SSDP members, are working tirelessly to draw local, national and global policymakers’ attention to how these issues intersect with drug policy reform to influence people’s lives. Achievements just in 2020 include SSDP Ghana working with key government institutions to provide input into the country’s historic new Narcotics Control Commission Bill, which legalized cannabis and hemp for health, research and industrial purposes; SSDP Israel becoming a member of the official Israeli Harm Reduction Forum; members of SSDP Ireland and YouthRISE meeting with the Irish delegation at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) session to discuss Irish and international concerns for young people; organizing an exhibition about peer-led drug education at the UN; Michigan State University SSDP passing a resolution banning the use of facial recognition technology on campus; and, Ohio State University SSDP campaigning successfully for their university to distribute free fentanyl testing strips on campus.

While in the past couple of years, we have seen improvements in the opportunities available to young people to engage in processes that will continue to shape their lives, we still have a long way to go.

In the most important decision making spaces, youth involvement remains largely symbolic. While the agenda of this year’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) session was filled heavily with youth-focused side events on drug prevention and education, and the most significant resolution on the table of the plenary was about youth involvement in drug prevention efforts (put forward by the Russian Federation), it was tremendously difficult if not impossible to find Young Key Affected Populations represented on panels, or getting the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions. The Youth Delegates to the 2020 Youth Forum still work only in parallel to the actual session, essentially barring them from effective access to the plenary discussions. Their contribution has remained a 5-minute statement – a waste of their voices, efforts, and talents.

As long as youth-focused resolutions, strategies and action plans continue to be adopted without meaningful involvement of young people, these policies will bring little to no progress towards a better life for said youth. Talking extensively about protecting ‘youth at risk’ from drug-related harms means little when current drug policies pose dangers especially for young people… How could it be differently when the living and lived experiences of young people who use drugs are not channeled into policy?!

While young people continue to be used as props on show in spaces like the CND, young advocates face very real, severe risks for their involvement in drug policy reform processes in many places. Several of our friends and allies from the organization Legalize Belarus are currently detained by police.

On this International Youth Day, we call on the United Nations and the global community at large to acknowledge that most often, young people are able to make these outstanding contributions to their communities and local, national, and global level policymaking despite of the exclusionary structure of these processes, not because of any concerted global effort for involving young persons in governance.

Recognizing our achievements is an important step, but the conversation needs to include reducing the institutional barriers on all levels.

To learn more about youth drug policy reform, check out this article by YouthRISE’s International working group in Argentina. Click here for the English version and haga clic aquí para leer la versión española.

This blog was originally written for the International Drug Policy Alliance (IDPC), see the original here.