Remote Internship, the New Normal

Mehri GhazanjaniBy Mehri Ghazanjani

This summer, I started my remote internship at the HIV Legal Clinic thinking that it would be an awkward or inconvenient. However, soon I realized that in fact there were a number of advantages to a remote internship. For example, I was quite happy I didn’t have to go through the stressful experience of finding accommodation in Toronto. However, I soon realized that the key to a positive and effective remote experience was having clear and frequent communication. One of the first things that stood out to me when I started my internship was how quick and willing people, and in particular my supervisor, were to join a Zoom/Team call and allocate their time to answering my questions. Despite everything being remote, people still actively communicated ideas on how to improve something, or just fun life stuff. And this really eased the process for me.

This year, I realized how easy it is to lose motivation and stay engaged when you are physically disconnected from people and responsibilities in your life. In terms of interning remotely, there are many things that I learned about staying motivated and productive. For one, the fact that I was working on very interesting projects, including working on a submission to the UN Committee against Torture about criminalization of drugs in Canada and its torturous impacts on various marginalized groups kept me engaged, motivated, and passionately involved.

In particular, punitive drug laws and policies in Canada have fueled deadly stigma and epidemics of preventable illness and death, contributing both to significantly higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) among people who inject drugs in Canada than among the population as a whole and to an overdose crisis that has resulted in almost 20,000 overdose deaths between January 2016 and September 2020, with Indigenous Peoples particularly affected.

While the toxic drug supply is largely responsible for these dire numbers, the unregulated market is driven by Canada’s long-standing policy of criminalizing drugs and the people who use them. This punitive approach pushes some people to use their drugs in isolation, compromising their ability to take vital safety precautions, deterring people from essential health care and social supports, and subjecting people who use drugs to increased risk of overdose, HIV and HCV infection, and other harms —constituting a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Moreover, the criminalization of personal possession and trafficking has hampered the scale-up and operation of supervised consumption services (SCS), which are settings that provide a safe, hygienic environment where people can use drugs with sterile equipment under the supervision of trained staff or volunteers to prevent the transmission of infections and overdose-related deaths. Not only have SCS been one key measure to address Canada’s ongoing overdose crisis, they can also provide a refuge from various forms of violence that women who use drugs may experience on the street.

In 2017, Canada replaced some of the onerous legislative requirements to operate SCS with simpler, streamlined requirements, resulting in new SCS being implemented across the country. Yet there remains a need to facilitate the scale-up of SCS across the country and to remove restrictions (imposed by the criminalization of trafficking) on assisted injection administered by SCS staff or peers and on splitting and sharing of controlled substances — restrictions which prevent people from accessing SCS and increase their risk of overdose and criminalization.

Notably, the provision of other harm reduction services — including drug checking — are also hampered by the criminalization of personal possession and trafficking. Drug checking services provide people who use drugs with information on the chemical composition of their drug samples to facilitate more informed decision-making.  Given the extreme toxicity of the unregulated drug market and staggering loss of life due to overdose fatalities, impediments to the implementation of harm reduction services like supervised consumption services and drug checking inflict harm and suffering upon people who use drugs, further constituting a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

I assisted HIV Legal Clinic in drafting a submission to the UN Committee against Torture and argued that Canada’s drug policies are in violation of Articles 1 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Working on this submission was definitely one of my personal highlights this summer!

More than anything, one thing that I’ve taken away from this experience is how valuable it is to be adaptive. Especially in the times of Covid-19, where we’ve constantly had to adjust ourselves to a “new normal,” I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that it is okay to be uncertain, in doubt, and even confused. When facing uncertainty, I realized, it is important to take a step back every once in a while, before throwing yourself into unfamiliar grounds.

I have to admit that at first I was rather disappointed when I realized I couldn’t experience the in-person version of the internship, something I was very much looking forward to. But everything worked out nicely in the end and I still had a wonderful intern experience. I particular, two things that have made a huge difference for me were support and transparency from my supervisor and helpful feedback on my ideas and work. Complicated times are always full of unique and life-changing opportunities. It’s always important to prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Reflecting on COVID-19 and Human Rights

Alice JeonBy Alice Jeon

A silver lining of this quarantine-filled summer was that it left me with a lot of time to sit down and reflect. One thing that I have been thinking about is how this COVID-19 pandemic might alter the course of human rights work. Which human rights issues will become prioritized? Which advocacy strategies are still possible and preferred? Does the pandemic call for any changes in how we should think about ethical issues related to human rights? These are questions that I have continued to think about as I wrap up my internship at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

For one, my experience during the internship has showed me that the pandemic inevitably places certain human rights issues at the forefront of our attention. For us at the HIV/AIDS Legal Network, it has been the skyrocketing rates of drug overdose since the start of quarantine.

Statistics from Toronto Public Health reported that there were 287 suspected opioid overdose calls and 25 deaths in May 2020, the highest number of fatalities since September 2017.  The ongoing opioid crisis was compounded with the unique social circumstances caused by quarantine to create one of the worst periods of drug overdose in the past few years.

In this way, the pandemic has inevitably moved certain issues (e.g. child abuse, access to health care) to the forefront of the human rights agenda. At the same time, it is important to clarify that many of these issues are by no means “new.” COVID-19 may have exacerbated them but these social issues stem from deeply rooted, previously existing inequities that have merely become more exposed at this moment.

Furthermore, I have also been thinking about how COVID-19 may change what human rights advocacy looks like. Our organization is lucky in the sense that our work was only impacted on a minor level; our hearings were delayed and of course, we had to do work remotely, but that did not stop us from doing most of our legal research-based work. However, the reality is that a lot of human rights work consists of field work, working with people on the ground to figure out what is happening first-hand. This becomes very difficult with closed borders and two-week quarantines in place. Even without these hurdles, human rights work will definitely be harder in the sense that workers will be at higher risk of falling sick. This said, some would argue that infectious viruses have existed before COVID-19, something that has never stopped them from doing their work.

Here is another question that I have thought about: if we are in a situation where human rights issues must be put “on hold” in order to help contain the pandemic, to what extent should we do so? Or should we have to at all? For instance, how should we balance our right to privacy with the need to track the movement of the virus? Another question related to my internship work: to what extent is it acceptable that supervised injection sites are temporarily closed as a result of minimizing social interaction; and at what point does the closure become unacceptable? This seems like an important question, for I hypothesize that these closures may be related to the staggering number of overdose deaths.

At the moment, it seems like there are more questions than answers. However, even if a vaccine is eventually found, COVID-19 and its consequences are most likely here to stay. I would not be surprised if it permanently altered the field of human rights work, whether it is the issues that are prioritized, the type of advocacy that becomes preferred, or the way we think about ethical questions in relation to human rights. Uncertainty abounds but at least we can start making sense of which questions must be asked.

 

 

The criminalization of drugs and access to health

For those wondering, that is tea, not coffee. PS: Thanks for taking time to read this post.

By Jeansil Bruyère

Coffee. Some people drink it religiously, whilst others, like myself, might (emphasis on might) have a sip once a year. It is a question of preference, no moral undertones whatsoever. I am not a bad or better person for not needing caffeine to function (Although some people are jealous of this ultra-human ability). This said, coffee has its positive and negative side-effects but remains socially acceptable. However, this is not the case for a panoply of drugs that are currently criminalized and drug users who are marginalized. As a communication studies major in a previous life, I have always been sensitive to how the media, particularly mainstream, depicts marginalized populations or deviant behaviour.

From the Western world’s blanket depiction of devout Muslims as extremists, or criminal masterminds systematically depicted as leading drug rings, drugs seem to be an evil to be eradicated. Realistically, prohibiting drug use, production and distribution is outrageous. Various drugs have roots in medicinal and even cultural practices. Take for example the coca leaf used for centuries by the Bolivian peoples to help deal with altitude ailments. What does all this have to do with my internship at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (the Network)?

The topic of my second blog post was inspired by recurring interrogations people have been having with the Network’s drug related projects. Goal #3 of the organization’s 2014-2017 aspirations include demanding human rights for prisoners and people who use drugs. This has been a source of confusion for many individuals as the link between drug users and HIV is not necessarily clear to everyone at first glance. The human right at risk here is access to health. People who use drugs face serious health risks closely linked to HIV transmission when adequate syringes and other drug-use equipment are not offered.

A classic example of how drugs have always had negative depictions in mainstream media would be Scarface (1983) where a Cuban refugee, Tony Montana (the dapper Al Pacino), rises to become a powerful drug kingpin.

Midway through my internship at the Network, I was lucky enough to witness the inner-workings and preparations of various important symposiums including the preparation of the Canadian Delegation to UNGASS 2016, on drug policy reform. Initially schedule for 2019, the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Drug and Crime was brought forward to 2016 in light of the outcry of various countries outraged and disappointed by the failure of the war on drugs. Notably, civil society is currently mobilizing to advocate for supervised consumption services, enhance political and legal support for needle and syringe programs, and ultimately defend the human rights of people who use drugs.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network demands access to comprehensive HIV and HCV services for people who use drugs and people in prison.

From the various conferences organized by the Network,  I quickly learned that punitive drug laws and policies impede access to harm reduction for people who use drugs, which indirectly also has an impact on indigenous peoples, black communities, and prisoners to name a few. The global war on drugs has failed and prohibitionist policies are crumpling people of various populations.

Drug use in certain regions of the world are culturally accepted, and have been so for centuries. Bolivia, for instance, stopped campaigns of forced eradication of crops because chewing of coca leaves was and still is a part of their lives. The President ignored the international control system and did not accept the belief that the Coca leaf was a dangerous drug. This is a perfect example of how outdate laws and practices do not only impede the right to health but the autonomy and cultural practices of aboriginal peoples.

Bolivian President Evo Morales shows a coca leaf during a presentation before the UN, chewing this substance is a century old cultural practice frowned-upon by the proponents of the war on drugs.

In Canada, the Network has been part of various initiatives from Supreme Court interventions to cases based in Russia and other regions of the world. I had the opportunity to participate in our national contribution to an international campaign: Support don’t Punish, a global advocacy campaign calling for better drug policies that prioritise public health and human rights. While certain countries have been using the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (June 26th) to publicly execute illicit drug users, civil society has come together to advocate for better policy reform. In collaboration with the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, the Network participated in a rally on June 26th of 2015. To prepare for the event, I worked with various members of the Policy Analyst and Communications Department teams to create the Network’s our spin on the Support don’t Punish campaign. Taking people of various backgrounds to take a stand against the war on drugs, we created the following social media piece:

  

What’s next for Quebec? Safer Injection Centre or Supervised Injection Site (SIS) are currently in the works for our beautiful province. Hopefully, we will be able to follow the footsteps of the 2003 safe injection site (Insite) based in British Columbia. Needle exchanges do exist in Montreal, but safe injections sites are the next step in the paradigm shift towards drugs. A sterile and safe place where drug users can use their own drugs under medical supervision and with access to a variety of services. With over ten years of scientific evidence, SIS do not promote criminal activity. In fact, they save lives by preventing overdoses, as well as HIV and hepatitis C transmission.

That said, informed discussions surrounding sound drug policy are inevitable when talking about the right to adequate health services. Lives are at stake and Canada should become a leader in drug reform globally. Like coffee, drugs are consumed and who are we to judge? I do not judge people who drink coffee. So just because one does not consume such substances does not mean they are better people (duh!).

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