Gonzo Nieto and the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy aim to change global drug policy
“I experienced my own death,” said Gonzo Nieto.
It was the summer before he was leaving for university. Taking his parents car and picking up a few friends, they went to the local head shop and bought a bong, a torch flame lighter and a bag of Salvia.
Salvia Divinorum, is a plant that when smoked leaves a person in a haze of hallucinations. It’s often the choice for people experimenting because until recently, it was been legal to buy from head shops.
Smoking was not a new experience for Nieto as he had started smoking pot the year before. He didn’t feel anything until he exhaled the psychotropic smoke.
“I was looking over the horizon, seeing something larger than my field of view. A ball made up of hundreds of tiny coloured bricks was rolling in my direction. I knew it would crush me,” he said. He came to in the forest and everything was the way he left it. Soon he’d leave for school and his life would change forever.
“Salvia scared the shit out of me,” he said.
Nieto is the co-chair of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, or the CSSDP. The organization is a grassroots movement driven by students motivated to change global drug policy. It aims to bring awareness to the benefits and challenges of the legalization movement.
Born in Montreal, Nieto’s childhood revolved around his family constantly being on the move. It would take him until the age of 11 before he would set down roots in Toronto.
Like many families, his parents did not support drug use. However, this didn’t stop him from experimenting with drugs as he got older.
“I started smoking cannabis at 16 and had a large hand at introducing my brother to it,” he said. But it wasn’t until his experience with Salvia, his first psychedelic drug, that he became curious about drugs and drug policy.
Following his psychedelic awakening, Nieto went back to Montreal to study neuroscience at Concordia. Disappointed by the lack of discussions about psychedelic use and their potential positive benefits, he continued to do his own research. “We don’t have a culture of thinking about altered states of consciousness,” he said.
Through a mix of curiosity for drugs, the policies surrounding them and a desire to educate, Nieto discovered the CSSDP. It seemed like the perfect organization to channel his interests. It was not long before he decided to apply for the national chair position. “It was a ballsy decision since I was still so new to the organization but I felt like I was qualified,” he said.
Since his involvement with the CSSDP, he has helped organize a number of events and three local chapters have already sprung up at Concordia, McGill and Université de Montreal.
A recent initiative was an event called Envisioning Cannabis Legalization, hosted by the McGill chapter. Pillows littered the floor as a crowd of close to 40 people, mostly students, gathered to drink tea and share their views on all things cannabis.
Nieto led the conversation, standing tall and encouraging the audience to get involved.The meeting was entirely devoted to talking about how cannabis legalization should be done. “There are a lot of ways society tries to make you afraid of being open about your drug use,” he said. “There’s the impression that all drug users are addicts.”
Andras Lenart, a member of the McGill chapter, feels that it’s about time for a change. “Look at alcohol. I don’t think the way society views drugs is fair and I want to work to change that.” Lenart, like many members, feels strongly about the movement and has spent a fair amount of time working alongside Nieto. “You can tell how passionate he is,” said Lenart. “He’s not in for the pride, he really wants to make a difference.”
While the temptation to idealize drug use was definitely a theme at the event, Nieto did say drug use could come at a cost. “I’ve struggled with cannabis dependency for six or seven years,” he said. Nieto has been making an effort to turn a new leaf, literally.
Eric Widdicombe, a mental health counselor at Concordia, said marijuana should be treated similarly to alcohol and more emphasis should be placed on educating people about the risks and warning signs associated with drug use.
“I think alcohol is more disruptive than marijuana,” he said. Widdicombe has spent a lot of time with youth and has developed a strong interest in the field of addiction. “With the younger population, a lot of experimentation is happening and at an earlier age than ever before,” he said.
Often drug problems are associated with deeper mental health issues and a lot of casual users take advantage of the substance to self medicate, he said. He believes that the field of addiction is still young and as more research comes out there is strong evidence showing environment and genetics are major factors.
The gathering marked the lead-up to an event that may just be the turning point the CSSDP has been dreaming about. On April 19, the United Nations is convening a special assembly that plans to address the world drug problem. Nieto will be one of the crusaders heading into the charge alongside NGOs like the Drug Policy Alliance and the National Council Against Drug Abuse. He plans to push for more language related to harm reduction. “I’m really optimistic” he said. “This could be where we finally move away from [the war on drugs].”