On 13th June, the UCL Mexican Society held its inaugural Mexico Summit on the topic of global drug policy in the aftermath of UNGASS. The Mexico Summit is a new initiative from the UCL Mexican Society as part of its efforts to offer a better understanding of Mexico’s challenges and initiatives in a global context.
Since its inception, UCL has been associated with cutting-edge research and progressive mindsets. It was the first secular university and the first to admit women; the ‘Godless institution in Gower Street’ has been the cradle of Nobel Laureates, leaders and artists. However, UCL remains stubbornly conservative when talking about drugs, especially compared to the likes of Newcastle University. However, in the absence of progress from the faculty, UCL students took it upon themselves to organise an event packed with eminent speakers to drive discussion of progressive and evidenced-based approaches.
In 2012, when Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala called for the UNGASS to be brought forward to 2016, there was a mood of great optimism. The world’s largest drug policy forum was brought forward in response to escalating drug-market fuelled violence and corruption in these countries and reform looked likely. However, after much political wrangling, there was broad disapproval amongst civil society of the weak Outcome Document which arose from the summit which mostly restated the supply-orientated prohibition-based approach of ‘the war on drugs’.
In response to the failings of the UNGASS process, the Summit merged smoothly the knowledge of experts in different fields to explore why the war on drugs has failed, the negative impact of it in society and the known alternative approaches.
Among the illicit drugs, cannabis seems to be the most unjustifiably punished one. Marijuana is the most produced, trafficked and consumed drug across the globe. An entire section of the Summit focused on the Marijuana debate
The first speaker, Professor Valerie Curran gave a brief overview of the neuroscience of cannabis. The two most prominent cannabinoids, CBD and TCH, seem to have opposing effects on the human brain and behaviour. CBD has antipsychotic and anti-anxiety properties and it can even enhance learning, whereas THC impairs learning, increases anxiety and produces psychosis-like effects. Prof Val Curran suggested ‘State control of the market could promote higher CBD strains and inform users of THC levels’. Unfortunately, the predominant type of cannabis dealt in the UK, most commonly referred to as ‘skunk’, is high in THC and with low levels of CBD. British smokers cannot select from a healthy menu. Check out Professor Curran’s last Nature Neuroscience review Keep off the grass? Cannabis, cognition and addiction for a fantastic summary of the current knowledge about cannabis.
Dr. Adam Winstock, founder of the Global Drug Survey, addressed the issue of drug use and harm reduction on the eve of the Survey’s 2016 results. Is the only way to completely avoid drug related harms not to use drugs? Yes. Are drugs a guilty pleasure? Yes, of course. But we can’t stop dosing for pleasure, it is intrinsic to our nature and there are ways of minimising the harm – ‘What moderates the risk of harm more than anything else is the way it is used’. Dr. Winstock was very critical with the European tendency of smoking cannabis with tobacco compared to only 7 percent of North Americans who smoke cannabis with tobacco. Mixing cannabis with tobacco increases the harm and the likelihood of addiction.
To conclude the cannabis debate Professor Alex Stevens of the University of Kent gave some thoughts on how to regulate without commercialising. A broad spectrum of alternatives already exist, ranging from ultra-prohibition to commercial promotion. Some examples are the social clubs system in Spain, the conditional non-prosecution in Amsterdam, the state monopoly model and the state-licensed market in Colorado. Commercial promotion could lead to the same mistakes we have made with tobacco and alcohol, whereas ultra-prohibition violates human rights and allows the unregulated criminal market to flourish with only violence to regulate it. Legal regulation lies in the middle point and seems the most reasonable path to take. In a previous section of the event, Steve Rolles of Transform showed graphically that legal regulation is the best way to go to minimise social and health harms.
Kelly Parra-Alba of Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK shared some inspiring words and concluding remarks for students and young adults in the audience. At the end of the day it is the youth who must live with the consequence, so let them have a voice.
The UNGASS was definitely not what Mexicans expected, but Mexico and their people will continue fighting for better policies, no matter how far they are from home.
Iván Ezquerra Romano is a co-founder of Drugsand.me, an organisation founded by UCL students to increase student awareness of evidence-based approaches to drug policy and education. Drugsand.me is an educational website that teaches about the existing harm reduction methods for drug users in a simple and accessible manner. The information in the site is collected from scientific journals and translated to a visual format.