Written by Ailish Brennan, chapter founder/leader of University College Dublin SSDP

While the inherently frustrating nature of the United Nations and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs has been particularly prevalent throughout my time in Vienna, the inspirational nature of the civil society groups and young people present this week has shone throughout.


The work by NGOs and other individual activists has kept me sane and motivated throughout all of these processes.

I had the pleasure of writing this blog post the same day some of the main youth-led NGO groups held their side events. Our own SSDP side-event entitled Youth, Drugs and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals allowed young people to lead the discussion for once instead of merely having our presence tokenized. The side event discussed why young people need to be meaningfully included in conversations around their health and well-being, specifically in the case of achieving the 2030 SDGs. Panelists Alex Betsos and Nazlee Maghsoudi presented the peer-led cannabis education model being developed by CSSDP, while Penny Hill of SSDP Australia discussed how youth inclusion in drug education makes it more likely several of the SDGs can be met on time. The very personal nature with which Orsi Fehér, chapter leader of SSDP Österreich, spoke was refreshing as she discussed her personal experience using drugs. In a space like the UN, hearing someone “come out” as a drug user can raise quite a few eyebrows. The discussion, co-sponsored by the Government of Canada, enabled civil society groups to speak from a position of genuine experience and discuss the importance of a movement towards a harm reduction model. Stressing the importance of a peer-based education model over the police-delivery model of the DARE program puts value in the voices of young people.

The event by YODA and YouthRISE directly after our event, titled Law Enforcement and Youth, brought a diverse panel of people again sharing their own experiences, from getting arrested as a young drug user in different parts of the world, to the other side of the handcuffs and having to deal with the arrest of your own brother as chief of police. A critical analysis of policies from Portugal to Australia showed that the problem of ineffectively dealing with drug use is present across the globe. Regardless of how the policies are labeled, the prohibitionist nature present in even the Portuguese “decriminalization” model invariably leads to unnecessary suffering.

Youth Voices

The need for the voices of young people has been brought into stark focus this week as we have been constantly reminded of the importance of “protecting youth” from the “scourge of drugs”, without input from people who use these drugs. The UNCND Youth Forum is an event which takes place coinciding with the main Convention and invites young people from member states to join the discussion and compile a statement to be made at the Plenary Sessions. This is a fantastic opportunity for young people to take part in the processes of the UN but it is one which anti-prohibitionist voices have been consistently excluded. Many of the young people I’ve spoken to from NGOs and Civil Society groups have recounted their stories of being denied entry to the discussion based on their views on decriminalization. The token use of youth voices to strengthen the argument against legalization should be condemned and has proven to be another motivating factor for many of the people we talk to in confronting the groups and delegations pushing for a “Drug-Free World.”

They Talk, We Die

A discussion on the frustrating nature of some of the processes at CND by our board member and International Liaison, Alex Betsos.

Back in 2017 the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs held a protest of Jane Philpott when she spoke at the Harm Reduction International Conference in Montreal. Canadian activists held up signs that said: “They Talk We Die”. The protest was to note that while Canada has made progress and done some good work in responding to the opioid crisis, any attempt by the government to pat themselves on the back was not only premature but disingenuous. While I appreciated the response from other drug policy reformers that the Canadian government was rather progressive in contrast to other countries, the sharp distinction between Canada and some other countries at the UN puts that discussion into better perspective. The Canadian Government has been pushing for a fairly progressive resolution on stigma*. Some civil society members I have met here have called the resolution on stigma, which notes that stigma can be a barrier for people who use drugs to access services, as a bold resolution*.

What is unfathomable is that while the Canadian government’s resolution on stigma has been stuck in private sessions (known as “informals”), with a lot of arguments from member states, it took less than an hour to schedule several fentanyl analogues, synthetic cannabinoids, and 4-fluoroamphetamine (4-FA) with nothing more than a few words from the World Health Organization. For a group of member states that have fought tooth and nail over the most minute details throughout the CND, not a single member state made comments about making any of these drugs illegal on an international level.

What impact will scheduling fentanyl analogues have on access to fentanyl when fentanyl has been internationally scheduled since the 1990s? From talking to a few people in Canada and also in the Netherlands (both of which have 4-FA scheduled), there is still interest from some people who use drugs in accessing 4-FA. To date, there have been no direct overdoses from 4-FA. Since 4-FA has been scheduled, other New Psychoactive Substances have come onto the market, including 4-fluoromethamphetamine, 2-Fluoramphetamine, and 3-fluoroamphetamine to name a few.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs reflects the reality that all people who use drugs know to be true. For five days, they talk: they talk to people who use drugs, about them, rarely with them, and while they do, our friends and love one’s continue to die.

Reprinted with permission from Students for Sensible Drug Policy.