JAI WHELAN - HIGHER UNDERSTANDING
Ngāi Te Rangi
"I am a passionate harm reduction advocate with a background in psychology and neuroscience. I'm currently in the final year of a PhD focused on the people of Aotearoa who use MDMA and their use behaviour. I'm broadly interested in everything drugs, and have a keen interest in psychopharmacology, culture, and policy. I'm currently the president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Ōtepoti, a group aiming to reduce drug and drug policy harm through advocacy, reform, and education.”
Why should people who use drugs care about what you have to say?
I would like people who use drugs to care about what I have to say because I care about them. One of the main reasons I got into this work is because of the discrimination people who use drugs face, and wanting to push back against that. What comes along with my line of work is learning about drug-related risks, and trying to communicate how to mitigate those risks through education, which is one thing I hope people who use drugs get from me.
Why should non-drug users care about what you have to say?
Essentially nobody is a non-drug user, and I think that’s an important point to make. People who “don’t use drugs” need to be reminded that coffee, chocolate, and alcohol are all in the drug bin. In saying that, the people who do not use illicit drugs should care about what I have to say for the same reasons as people who use drugs - I care. I’ve essentially decided to throw my entire life into this work, and that should be a reason that people begin to listen to what I have to say.
What would you say is the biggest issue facing the drug and drug policy field?
I don’t know if it’s the biggest, but one major issue is politicians who won’t do the right thing and change policy, even when there is mounting evidence staring them in the face. The other ever-present issue across the board is stigma. The views we hold are something we should reflect upon.
What do you think about being open about drug use?
I completely understand why people cannot always be open about their drug use. It’s something that many people struggle with. It’s unfortunate that we still live in a society where particular drugs are stigmatised. People who use those drugs can and do face severe consequences for being open about it, and if those people are already part of a marginalised community, it’s even worse. I think the world would be a very different, and much better place, if everyone was open about their drug use. We’d actually see some political change if people knew how many parliamentarians have lived or living experience, and the reduction in stigma that would come with increased openness would make it a bit easier for people who want help to ask for it.
Should all drugs be legalised?
Essentially yes. All of the drugs we currently know a bit about should be legalised. Drugs are made more dangerous when they are illicit - there’s no quality control, drugs come at a higher price, education is prohibited out of fear… the list goes on!
What’s your favourite drug and why?
It’s really hard to pick a single drug, and I see different values in many drugs. But I’ll take the easy way out and say MDMA. It’s the topic of my PhD and it’s had such a huge impact on culture! Particularly on one of my other major loves, dance music.
What’s your favourite fact about drugs?
Another tough question. I really can’t pin down one fact, but it’s worth remembering that drugs have been used for thousands of years - we’re just currently in a blip in time where use is illegal.
Define harm reduction in your own words
I really resonate with the approach taken by harm reduction pioneer Dan Bigg - harm reduction is about “meeting someone where they’re at”, and helping them with “any positive change”. For example, if someone isn’t ready to stop consuming a drug, but wants to improve their health, helping them switch from injecting to smoking is harm reduction!