By Jake Agliata (SSDP)
Twenty years ago, a few dozen college students in the United States had an idea to organize a network of students dedicated to ending the War on Drugs. Some of these students had been expelled for trying to organize anti-prohibition groups on campus, some had their financial aid stripped away due to discriminatory federal laws, and some simply felt they could no longer sit idly by while young people continued to be subjected to dangerous falsehoods about drugs through the D.A.R.E. program. These students, utilizing online message boards to conduct outreach to students in schools across the United States, would become the founders of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the first drug policy organization in the country comprised entirely of students. SSDP’s goal was simple: empower young people to participate in the political process and advocate for evidence-based drug policies grounded in science, human rights, and compassion for people who use drugs.
Today, SSDP is an international movement and the largest grassroots network of students dedicated to ending the War on Drugs. We have nearly 7,000 members organized in 250 different chapters across 30 countries, and those numbers are growing every day. From campus to the UN, our student members have achieved policy victories at every level of decision making, and on a diverse range of intersectional issues. Every year we publish a blog post recapping our top annual highlights, and every year the list gets more and more impressive. SSDP chapters have passed dozens of life-saving Good Samaritan Policies along with expanding access to naloxone on campus, put politicians on the record regarding cannabis legalization as well as drug decriminalization, and mobilized hundreds students to call out the lack of youth inclusion at the United Nations. We have become a consistent presence at UN meetings such as the 2016 UNGASS and the annual sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, where we have presented a side event every year since 2014. Internally, the global culture of SSDP is captured within our student-elected Board of Directors, which currently has students from Serbia, Ghana, and Nigeria serving terms. Even after graduation SSDP members have stayed active in the movement, as many of our alumni have gone on to become some of the key players in the movement. It’s safe to say that any gathering of drug policy reformers is going to have at least a few SSDPers not only present, but actively leading conversations.
SSDP’s international expansion is indicative of our progress over the past 20 years. Our members understand that ending the War on Drugs must be an international effort that places the liberation of communities most harmed by prohibitionist policy at the forefront of the conversation. The War on Drugs may have been coined in the United States, but it has since spread into a global humanitarian crises that has been used to legitimize colonialism, military occupations, and human rights abuses all over the world. Furthermore, the rise of international leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump has necessitated constant action in response to increasingly oppressive and violent policies against people who use drugs. For these reasons SSDP has embraced a global approach to our advocacy, utilizing our resources to train young people all over the world on grassroots organizing and policy change. Some of SSDP’s strongest chapters are in countries that have been among the most affected by the War on Drugs, such as Mexico, Nigeria, and the Philippines. For many SSDPers in these countries, just speaking out against the status quo can put their safety in jeopardy. SSDP provides confidence and reassurance to these students that they have a global family of like-minded peers supporting their work. We have also engaged in coalition building with other youth-led organizations that are working on identical or intersectional issues, such as Youth Rise and Youth Organisations for Drug Action (YODA). In January 2017, we were able to work with our allies around the world to organize the first ever Global Youth Drug Strategies Convening in Bangkok, Thailand, where we held a week long workshop on grassroots organizing strategies. We also initiated plans to form a new global youth coalition, Paradigma, that will ensure a unified youth voice is present in the global drug policy community.
The first celebration of our 20th anniversary will come this upcoming weekend (2 March - 5 March) as the SSDP family gathers in Baltimore for the 2018 International SSDP Conference and Lobby Day. Over 350 people representing a dozen different countries are expected to be in attendance to discuss the history and future of drug policy reform. Attendees will hear from subject experts in global drug policy, harm reduction, public health, grassroots advocacy, public policy, psychedelic medicines, and much more. Because SSDP is first and foremost a platform for youth voices, students themselves with have opportunities to share their lived experiences with the drug war and speak about their own expertise on some of the previously mentioned topics. Speakers at the conference will include students from the Philippines, Mexico, Bolivia, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, and Austria, ensuring that our attendees receive a global perspective on all of the topics discussed. The conference will culminate on Monday, 5 March as we travel down to Washington, DC for a Lobby Day, where we have scheduled dozens of meetings with US policymakers to discuss harm reduction policy. International students will also participate in these meetings, adding their global perspective to the arguments of their US peers.
Of course, with the 61st Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting on the horizon, we don’t plan on relaxing after the conclusion of the conference. SSDP has some big plans for CND this year, starting off 10 March with the Vienna Youth Summit on Sensible Drug Strategies. The free one-day workshop, hosted at the University of Vienna, will open a dialogue with young people about evidence-based approaches to drug regulation, education, and policy making. Hosting this event directly prior to the 61st CND also gives us an unique opportunity to engage and formulate a youth platform for the conference, further amplifying the voices of a demographic often marginalized at the UN. Orsi Fehér, the chapter leader of SSDP Österreich, first had the idea for the summit over a year ago:
“We had the idea of mobilizing young people in our networks last CND, when I met some other amazing student activists by chance. I was still struggling with getting our SSDP chapter started locally, but saw a huge potential in the drug policy movement and what youth activists have already achieved in our region. We wanted to take advantage of the fact so many young drug policy activists will be in Vienna at the same time to strengthen these connections, inspire each other, expand the network, and exchange ideas so we can lay solid foundations for what’s to come for the European and global drug policy movement.”
At the CND itself, SSDP plans to once again present a side event, titled “Youth, Drugs, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals”, alongside our sister organizations Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia* as well as the Government of Canada. Our side event will discuss why youth-led peer drug education centered on harm reduction is crucial for ensuring young people are able to obtain the highest possible standard of health, and how stigmatization of drug use is often an impediment towards education. We also plan to discuss why we believe the legalization and regulation of drugs offers an opportunity to be more pragmatic about the way young people can educate themselves about drugs. The SSDP side event will take place at CND at 13:10 on 14 March, in Conference Room MOE79.
As we celebrate our twentieth anniversary this year, it’s clear to all of us that SSDP has never been in a better position to mobilize students around the world to end the War on Drugs. We are excited to celebrate our birthday this year, but also look forward to continuing our mission over the next twenty years and adding to our list of accomplishments. Support from organizations like IDPC has been crucial to us as we look to engage in more impactful work at the United Nations and in the areas of the world where we have yet to reach any students. We’re thrilled to be a part of this global family of activists who have done so much to correct the injustices committed against people who use drugs and the communities they belong. With young people leading the way, we will build a future where drug policies are not an impediment towards health, freedom, and security.
*Note: CSSDP and SSDP AU started out as SSDP networks, but have since become independent entities that focus on policy change only in their countries. Since SSDP therefore does not conduct any programs in Canada or Australia, we do not count them as countries where we have an SSDP International presence. Our networks do maintain a very close relationship, especially in regards to international drug policy initiatives.