Written by Rebeca Marques Rocha

In the latest edition of our series, “Hear the Pioneers: Conversations with Drug Policy Veterans,” we had the privilege of engaging in a captivating dialogue with Marie Nougier, the Head of Research and Communications at the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). Although her roots lie in France, Marie has been living in the UK for over 15 years, where she joins the IDPC secretariat based in London. Our conversation was a vivid exploration of a pivotal theme – the amplification of youth voices in the realm of drug policy and harm reduction. *

A person sitting at a podium with a microphone

Description automatically generated

Marie speaking at the CND Intersessional Meeting in January 2017.

The Role of IDPC

The IDPC is a global network of non-governmental organizations with over 190 members from around the world. Its shared mission is to champion drug policies that advance social justice and human rights. At the core of IDPC’s mission is the unification of pro-reform NGOs, magnifying their collective influence to challenge the failed war on drugs and advocate for policies rooted in human rights, health, development, and social justice. The consortium plays a pivotal role in ensuring the involvement of civil society in drug policy debates and policy-making at international and regional levels, including the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the Organization of American States, and nationally. It stands as an essential resource for supporting members and partners in their advocacy for more humane and effective drug policies, making IDPC a leading voice in global drug policy reform.

Youth engagement beyond the mere ticketing-boxes exercise

Marie’s reflections unveiled a historical wound in the tapestry of drug policy discussions. For years, the clamor of young voices, essential in addressing drug-related issues like harm reduction and service accessibility, was alarmingly muted. The attempts to integrate youth perspectives were often dishearteningly superficial, akin to mere box-ticking exercises.

One startling example she highlighted was the Youth Forum at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The forum has served as the main avenue for bringing the youth voices to the debates taking place in the UN corridors in Vienna. Nevertheless, the Youth Forum’s opaqueness regarding its participants’ selection process – directly nominated by Members States – has long been criticized. “We don’t know who’s there. Young people from the drug policy reform movement, for example, have scarcely [MOU1] had access to that youth forum”, she said.

There seems to be a disconnect between the Youth Forum and other existing efforts led by young people at the CND. Traditionally, the forum has focused on prevention and abstinence-based recovery discourses, leaving much of the harm reduction aspects outside of their agenda. “I think this is incredibly problematic because then you have an ‘official’ youth forum, but you don’t really know how it operates, how to integrate it, and how to influence its positions” she added. The transparency and efficacy of the forum remain an open question.

From Prevention to Harm Reduction

While there has been commendable progress, the dialogues regarding youth engagement in drug policy have predominantly revolved around prevention, sidelining the profound importance of harm reduction. She reflected on the complexities and particularities surrounding youthful drug use. “Young people have specific needs. They also have specific patterns and ways of using drugs that might be different from adults”, she said.

Emphasizing the necessity of a paradigm shift, Marie noted that “for all services, in any case, the target population should be meaningfully involved from the very beginning.” Tailored services and advocacy endeavors are pivotal, considering the unique needs, usage patterns, and experiences of young individuals in the drug policy landscape.

She highlights how the design of harm reduction services and policies should be a collaborative and participatory process. “It’s a two-way street. You have to be able to talk about what might concern you, what you believe needs to change in terms of policies and service provision and delivery”, she affirmed. Marie remarked on the importance of providing a platform for delving into the intricacies of youth engagement, allowing personal narratives to intertwine with the broader mission. “We need to be creative in terms of how we design the services to make sure that young people have access to these spaces”, she said.

UNGASS 2016: ¿Que es lo que está en juego? Entrevista a Marie Nougier -  Global Rights

Marie participating in the Support Don’t Punish campaign in 2016.

Overcoming Barriers to Participation

Marie’s observations underscored the pressing question – how to genuinely integrate young people into the multifaceted process of shaping drug policies and harm reduction strategies.

Navigating the intricacies of drug policy-making spaces could be likened to a labyrinthine journey, even for seasoned advocates. “Coming to the CND is intimidating, even for people who have been coming here for a very long time. It’s my 13th CND and it is still difficult to understand or follow everything that’s happening. And some of the governments don’t want to talk to you. You don’t necessarily know how things work, where you can engage or take the floor”, she added.

Hostile stances from certain governments toward civil society amplify the complexities surrounding meaningful youth engagement in policy and services design. Reflecting on this sobering reality, Marie pointed to the pivotal role of organizations such as Youth RISE and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), which are dedicated to empowering young advocates, equipping them to confidently occupy international drug policy spaces. “Youth RISE, SSDP and colleagues have done a lot of capacity building to bring young people here, explaining the debate, why they need to be here, and how they can influence the discussions”.

Contrasting today’s scenario with the one during her formative years, Marie expresses her optimism. “To talk about drug use and harm reduction is incredibly important and that wasn’t always possible when I was a young person,” she remembered. “There’s a very strong sense of community within the drug policy reform movement”, she continued, evaluating the present state of youth activism. “It’s critical for young people to feel that they’re part of an exciting movement where they can claim their rights”, she concluded.

A group of women sitting in a meeting

Description automatically generated

Marie speaking at the side event “Implementing the United Nations Bangkok Rules: Women and Drug Policies” during the CND in 2020.

Mobilize and Get Heard!

Marie passionately encouraged young advocates to actively participate in campaigns like Support Don’t Punish, highlighting the pivotal role of articulating their vision for drug policy reform. She also underscored useful resources – such as IDPC’s e-course on Decriminalization – for building capacity among young advocates for drug policy reform.

Furthermore, she emphasized the importance of young individuals joining organizations like SSDP and Youth RISE – members of IDPC’s network – to express their distinctive perspectives but also amplify their collective strength.

In a closing note, she underscored the importance of young activists engaging in events like the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Through such involvement, she argued, young advocates could partake in substantive conversations with policymakers. “You have the credibility to be there, and you have the expertise that comes from your own experience, and that’s worth sharing”, she affirmed.

As our series continues to unravel the wisdom of veterans in the field, we invite you to stay tuned for more voices committed to the mission of drug policy reform.

*This conversation took place in March 2023, during the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.