I interview friends, colleagues, and experts, on harm reduction and its implications in Canadian society, from the theory to the practice, to the practical. I am a Member-at-Large for Outreach for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and writer for Karmik, Fresh Start Recovery Centre, and the Marijuana Party of Canada. Here I interview Gonzo Nieto, part 1.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become interested in being involved in drug policy in Canada?
Gonzo Nieto: My interest with drug policy began with my own use, which started with cannabis as a teen. A lot of my peers were using drugs, both in high school and university. That all began to get me interested in the phenomenon of drug use in general.
What really caught my interest was psychedelics, after I had my first experience with psilocybin mushrooms. I began to educate myself pretty extensively about psychedelics. I would spend hours listening to lectures and talks by various people, reading books, and browsing forums and seeing what was there in terms of other people’s experiences.
This got the ball rolling as I began to discover how large and diverse the field of drug policy is, and I fell further and further down the ‘rabbit hole’.
Jacobsen: With respect to personal use, how much knowledge did you have beforehand about medical and psychological effects?
Nieto: Not very much, I didn’t come into drug use in a very informed way. It was youthful curiosity and blissful ignorance that led me to try cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms. These experiences stoked my curiosity, and then I got to educating myself more. When I started smoking pot, I didn’t know much other than that my friends were using it.
When some of my peers were using psychedelics in high school, I mostly recall hearing myths and lies about psychedelics. I remember hearing kids at school say that magic mushrooms make your brain bleed, and that’s why you hallucinate. Silly stuff like that. I remember others saying it was a fun trip, describing psychedelics like the next level up from pot, which I came to learn is not the case — they’re completely different.
But like most people, I wasn’t very well educated about drugs prior to encountering and trying them. I didn’t have good drug education at my school, at least “good” by my standards — what we got was police officers come to our school to scare us about the scourge of drugs.
Jacobsen: How did you get involved with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy?
Nieto: After I graduated university, my partner motivated me to start writing a column on drugs using the knowledge I had amassed during the previous five years of my undergrad. I began writing a column in the student newspaper, which I called Turning Inward.
The column went really well. Pretty much every time I published an article, it became one of the most read articles in the student newspaper for that week. I continued writing articles regularly for about seven months.
One of the articles that I wrote was called MDMA: A Guide to Harm Reduction. I wrote it because several friends that previous week had asked me questions about MDMA that, to me, were fairly basic because of what I had been learning and reading about. I realized this sort of stuff wasn’t common knowledge for most of my peers.
CSSDP shared my article on Twitter. I contacted CSSDP to thank them for sharing it and to ask how I could get involved. They responded that I should try to attend their conference coming up in Toronto. At the conference, they were electing new members to the organization’s board, so I decided to put my name in the hat.
Jacobsen: What do you consider the core principle of CSSDP?
Nieto: Primarily, I would say the core value is the idea that drug use should not be treated as a criminal justice issue, but rather as an issue of public health and social cohesion.
Jacobsen: Two philosophies compete with regards to how to deal with issues like youth drug use, the zero tolerance approach, and the harm reduction model. Which do you prefer, and why?
Nieto: I stand by the harm reduction model, without question. In the debates around drug use, these two models are sometimes presented as though they are equally valid in some sense, but I think there’s a strong case to be made that the punitive approach is in denial of reality.
That perspective is based on the assumption that some set of actions could be taken which would result in total abstinence across the board. That’s just not true, as demonstrated by the decades that precede us.
Drug use appears to be a core component of the human species. To say that human drug use dates back tens of thousands of years is probably a conservative estimate. Any recorded history of humans shows humans using drugs. It’s not a new phenomenon. What is relatively new is outlawing and punishing drug use, and there’s an argument to be made that the punishments in place for drug crimes cause far more damage to the individual and society than the use of drugs does in the first place.
The harm reduction model recognizes that, no matter how refined the attempts at prevention may be, some people will still choose to use drugs, and there needs to be education and services in place that help reduce the preventable harms associated with that drug use.Harm reduction meets people where they are rather than telling them what they should or should not do. It says, “If you do use, here’s some information and services to ensure your safety and to help minimize preventable harms.”
Harm reduction meets people where they are rather than telling them what they should or should not do. It says, “If you do use, here’s some information and services to ensure your safety and to help minimize preventable harms.”
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