By 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!