The Center for Optimal Living co-sponsored a summit with a large group of other organizations including Families for Sensible Drug Policies, MAPS, the New York State Psychological Association’s Addiction Division and VOCAL-NY on June 9th and 10th at the New School on New Strategies for New Psychoactive Substances (NPSs). The intention was to converge into five panels a variety of people whose work and lives interact with these substances and their societal effects to have a discussion and develop a series of recommendations for researchers, clinicians, the media and the public to improve how we respond to the impacts of these substances.
The use of NPSs made the transition from club drug to a substance used by individuals in marginalized communities and those under legal monitoring due to a number of factors. A common reason for use of NPSs above other more traditional substances is to avoid failing drug tests for probation, job or drug treatment centers. Synthetic cannabis (K2) use in particular has been reported by users to help alleviate anxiety, depression and even help with opiate withdrawal symptoms while some users just prefer the higher potency of synthetic cannabis to marijuana. A definite increase in emergency room visits occurred for panic attacks and agitation but physicians observed unconscious and sedated individuals as well. The panels also focused on the impact of sensationalist media coverage as only the users with adverse reactions are reported and non-problematic users go undetected, leaving accurate media coverage of synthetic cannabis unavailable.
When speaking about some of the causes for NPS use Levele Pointer from VOCAL-NY pointed out that “the problem is not the drugs, the problem is our trauma and life stress”. It was also discussed that there is a serious lack of proper education on NPSs amongst counselors, law enforcement, physicians and even users along with a lack of thorough research in general. It would appear that NPS use was born out of the criminalization of traditional drugs, but K2 use is still prevalent in states like Colorado with legal marijuana accessible.
A number of the panelists pointed out some issues that underlie drug use in general that are not unique to NPS use. Terrell Jones from New York Harm Reduction Educators made an important point that with the terms ‘child abuse’ and ‘elder abuse’, there is a person involved, but with ‘drug abuse’ the person is removed and replaced with a drug. Through use of this language a societal belief system is founded that dehumanizes the drug user. A major source of discussion at the summit was the issue of race and the drug war, it was agreed upon in general that these two things are inseparable. It was pointed out that the original drug regulation began with the anti-Chinese opium laws and were born out of racism. The focus of the drug war has been on black and brown communities and the drug war is not actually about the drugs, it’s about controlling communities. Philip Alcabes commented that maybe it’s not about the drugs, it’s the “fear of the perceived fraying of the social fabric” and the social stigma panic about a disapproved set of activities by a feared group of people. He continued to say that society is looking for a scapegoat to blame and that we are a sensationalist addicted society. This plays into what was pointed out earlier about media exaggeration as a fuel to the fire of society’s fear cycle.
When the panels moved into discussion about solutions and the needs of the NPS using community, Andrew Tatarsky added “drug policy reform MUST include treatment reform” and that people must always have precedent over frameworks. Multiple panelists added that continued compassionate counseling, education of the user, housing and jobs are necessities. A point was made that harm reduction educators who know specific communities well and are sensitive to the different types of issues in these communities should be utilized as a kind of ambassador rather than sending in someone unfamiliar with a community. Real concrete research on NPSs is necessary as is increasing the availability of services for drug testing of the actual substances so that users can use safer. Educating journalists and those in the media is imperative and active response by our community to challenge inaccurate coverage is also crucial. The people in public health roles must also be re-educated to assist in the humanization of care for people who use drugs and agents of the state need to advocate more for the role of public health. A resounding theme throughout this summit was “public health not policy”, referring to a desired shifting of resources and energy away from the legal system and into a public health approach. In addition, it was mentioned that a fundamental change is necessary at all levels of society based on facts and research. On the first day Levele Pointer made the powerful statement that “I am not an addict, I am a person that uses drugs”, a reminder that drug use does not reduce or take away our humanity.
At the end of the summit detailed feedback sheets were distributed to gather the ideas and feedback of those in attendance in order to begin to construct an improved response to the unique issues brought up by NPS use. The summit was also recorded and we will provide a link to the video once its available.