Students for Sensible Drug Policy is a non-partisan, multi-ideological network of 5000 students activating from 300 campuses in 26 countries to replace the War on Drugs with policies rooted in science, public health, compassion, and liberty. Founded in 1998, SSDP has been engaged in every major us cannabis reform, has led the implementation of Good Samaritan 911 programs on campuses across the US, and was the leading organization in repealing the provision of the Higher Education Act that denied funding to students convicted of drug crimes. We work across the spectrum of drug policy reform and intersectional issues to change everything about the way society approaches drugs and the people who use them.
Betty was the spokesperson and field director for Colorado's Amendment 64 and is now the executive director of SSDP. She'll be joined by SSDP's top libertarians: Stacia Cosner, SSDP alum and deputy director, and Kat Murti, SSDP alum and vice-chair of the Board of Trustees who is perhaps better known as Cato's digital outreach manager and a leading member of LOLA.
We're looking forward to a conversation about the intersections on campus for the liberty and drug reform movements, what's next for drug reform, and the challenges and opportunities of regulated markets for cannabis and other drugs (including alcohol and tobacco!).
Hi Betty,Thanks for joining us for Student Leadership Month! How do you think student leadership and involvement in groups like SSDP makes students better off during college and after graduation?Kat & Stacy, how did student leadership impact your lives during college and after graduation?
Hi Tricia! Student and youth engagement in social change is incredibly powerful for everyone involved, and movements themselves. There really hasn't been a social change movement in modern history that has succeeded without student engagement, and as an older reformer, I'm constantly challenged to think bigger about my hopes for our movement by my bosses, our student members.
But that wasn't your question! Students engaged in social change in high school and college learn a bunch of critical skills that translate to academics and the workplace. In particular, I see SSDPers incorporating drug policy reform issues into their academic work across fields of study, from sciences to liberal arts. They are thinking deeply about the ways that drug policy intersects with economics, politics, sociology, literature, and the campus community at large. They're also learning how to organize people, make space for nuanced discussions, host events, motivate and mobilize people, and work levers of power to acheive their ends, generally through reasoned compromise.
And lastly, there's really no way to overstate how lasting and "addictive" the high is you get from being part of making a change. There's nothing in the world that feels quite like knowing you've made it a better place.
SSDP was absolutely the defining piece of my college experience. When people ask me what I majored in, I somewhat seriously say I majored in SSDP. I served as president of the University of Maryland chapter of SSDP, then began interning at the national headquarters, and was elected to the national board of directors. SSDP empowered me to make change in so many ways, not least of which is giving me the opportunity to sit on the board of a real, global nonprofit at the age of 19. One of the things I’m most proud about SSDP is that our board is 2/3 students.
When I graduated, I was fortunate enough to be offered a full time position on SSDP’s staff. Now coming up on my 9th year on the job, I’ve served in every position that exists in the organization from intern to interim executive director. It’s hard for me to find words to adequately explain the vast impact SSDP has had on my life. I met most of my friends through SSDP including my partner and my best friend/roommate, we’re really a big family and I cherish our community so much. (Definitely not a cult! ;-) #notacult)
Joining SSDP was one of the best decisions I made in my college career. Not only did I meet an amazing group of fellow activists and friends, but the network and experince I accrued in SSDP directly led into several job offers, both during and after college. The skills you learn in SSDP (including leadership, communications, coalition-building, political strategy, passing legislation, event organizing, campaigning, etc.) are directly transferable to the professional world, letting you graduate with real world work experience. SSDP alumni hold leadership positions in various fields around the world, and the tight network is a powerful resource no matter what career path you choose.
Hi Betty, Kat and Stacia. Thank you for doing this Ask Me Anything Session. What can be done at the state level about the opioid crisis? What's next for drug reform in Colorado and other states which have legalized cannabis?
Hi David, thanks for asking! States are taking mutli-pronged approaches to the opioid crisis and relying, in many places, less on the criminal justice system and more on prevention, harm reduction, and treatment. The biggest thing we're focused on now is access to naloxone and getting safe consumption facilities permissable and opened in the US. There's surely an effort for that in your state and I hope you'll get involved.
Changing norms or regulations around prescribing practices (and treatment modalities for pain) is a big deal -- it's still the case that many docs are prescribing far more opioids for short-term pain than are needed. In fact, there's a good argument to be made that, while opioids are helpful for many, it's often not the best treatment for pain. When people are prescribed opioids, they should also be prescribed naloxone and educated about what to look out for to avoid dependence.
Needle exchanges and safe consumption facilities are the best front-line defense we have against overdose and the many health problems that come from injection or street drug use, which just doesn't have to be as dangerous as it's become. Not only are the public health professionals working there able to provide clean needles, treat abcesses and wounds, and provide on-site health services, they're also able to refer folks into treament when they are ready and provide a rosk-solid social support system. Look into Vancouver's Insite and Crosstown Clinic for excellent examples.
Ideally, we'll be offering people the broad spectrum of treatment and support they need to live with opioid addiction or dependence without all the chaos. That might mean medication assisted treatment, iboga, cannabis, abstinence, or many other options, but fundamentally folks need access to the full spectrum of options from qualified providers -- and most treatment today isn't offering that.
This is the biggie for states like Colorado and Washington now, and efforts are well underway in the reform community around these issues.
1 more question, unrelated to my first:When I was in college, my school was considering making the campus Tobacco Free to open up the opportunity to earn more grants. An administrator was concerned that if we did so, students jonesing for a cigarette late at night could be forced off campus and could get hurt. Others were concerned that it may infringe upon students' rights, but their concerns were quelled by the promise of grants and government money, which many felt benefitted the whole student body to marginal cost to a marginal group of students. So my question is this: what should student leaders do in the face of this question, which many schools will face?
I'm pretty sure Stacia & Kat will take different views on this one, but here's mine:
Tobacco bans have loads of negative outcomes: the ones you mention above, litter, exposing students to interaction with campus police which might lead to other harms, and more. And, they have positive public health outcomes, contributing to reduced smoking among students. As fewer and fewer students smoke, a trend we should expect to see continue, it will become a more marginal issue. But at the end of the day, drug policy reformers often find these bans offend their political sensibilities, and rightly so. So they want to fight them.
Strategically, I don't think it makes much sense to die on that hill. A group choosing a campaign should consider how it impacts thier reputation and ability to move change in the future; smoking bans are incredibly popular and are seen as emminently sensible by public health officials, administrators, and communities at large. Such groups should consider the impact and urgency of the issue; smoking bans have minimal negative consequences as compared to the campus policies that are killing young people such as those related to alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs.
I realize this is a political viewpoint, not a principled one, but I'm into the principle of changing as much as we can as quickly as possible.
What are the main intellectual errors and perverse incentives driving opposition to drug decriminalization?
The main intellectual error, of course, is the notion that prohibition works. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not society has a compelling interest in limiting drug use through regulatory or other means, but no one can objectively look at the evidence available and say that either prohibition or criminalization has made drug use less problematic, prevalent, or dangerous.
Unfortunately, we've all been taught a bunch of scary things about drugs that rile up our fear response and make us susceptible to those arguments even when they are made by those with perverse incentives: people involved in the prison industrial complex, the beneficiaries of civil asset forteiture, and amoral or misinformed drug treatment providers.
The body of work around this complex problem is immense, but in short, decriminalizing drugs would
- radically shrink the prison population beyond just those people convicted for drug crimes. Most people are introduced to the CJ system through a drug crime, leading to further involvement, and many parole and probation violations are drug-related
- decimate the civil asset forfeiture scheme, "robbing" cops and DAs of an incredibly lucrative slush fund
- eliminate the practice of court-ordered referrals into coerced drug treatment, which account for a third of referrals (oh, btw, coerced treatment has garbage outcomes and takes up beds for people who are ready for the help, so this is EXTRA perverse)
Hey Betty (and Kat and Stacia), how do you appeal to different demographics, especially since there are such a variety of reasons people have for supporting the drug war?
Like libertarianism, drug policy offers the potential to work with a very diverse coalition of allies across the political and socioeconomic spectrum. The War on Drugs has negatively impacted all or almost all people in some way, and it's important that we both shape our communications stategy accordingly and that we accurately reflect the experiences of those who have been impacted when designing best practices and policies. SSDP is committed to ensuring that all stakeholders in the War on Drugs have a seat at the table. While the organization as a whole makes that an explicit goal of our work, the Diversity, Awareness, Reflection, and Education committee (SSDP-DARE), which I have chaired since 2012, leads that initiative. SSDP-DARE is a collaborative committee comprised of board & non-board members, students, alumni, & community members (meaning YOU can join too!) dedicated to broadening Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s base & increasing engagement with presently underrepresented perspectives.
Since its founding in March 2011, SSDP-DARE has taken on the challenges of strengthening diversity in all its forms within SSDP. The committee endeavors to ensure that the range of perspectives & personal experiences of all communities and individuals negatively impacted in the War on Drugs are represented & integrated into SSDP & the drug policy reform movement at large.
DARE does this in a variety of ways, including:1. Listening to and advising SSDP on diversity-related issues related to the organization2. Developing a monthly educational resource, known as the Monthly Mosaic (though, stay tuned for a re-branidng announcement!)3. Raising funds for and allocating DARE scholarships for conferences4. Organizing an annual workshop and other programming at conferences
How does SSDP DARE define diversity?
The War on Drugs affects all demographics.
We are big tent people, thankfully! We work with students from Manila to Berkeley, and everywhere in between, so the social, cultural, and geographic contexts in which we work are even bigger than the conservative/liberal divide in the US. This is, frankly, one of the hardest things we do. But fundamentally, we're talking about principles and policies that relate to any context, and we know that, under objective analysis, prohibition doesn't hold up under any political orientation lens. Even moralists or social conservatives who are mostly concerned about people not having fun or expanding their minds with drugs can't argue that prohibition has worked to reduce such behaviors. So we stand on our principles, and invite our members to learn from each other through political debate and challenging conversations.
I already answered how SSDP tackles this incredibly important issue, but upon re-reading your question, I think you may actually have bee interested in how an individual can advocate their positions on an issue to a wide variety of people from different backgrounds with different lived experiences shaping their views.
This is HUGE for all activists, but especially for libertarians, drug policy advocates, and others who really are working on a wide variety of topics that impact many different people very differently. I speak on this often and I always give the same advice:
1. Always start by assuming that others have good intentions. Yes, of course, you will run into your ocasional troll, but the vast majority of the time, when someone holds a position you disagree with, it's not because they're evil and they want to make the world a worse place, but because they genuinely believe that whatever they're supporting will make the world better. Find out why they feel that way (ask questions! nicely!), look at it from their perspective, and make your arguments with their goals in mind (E.g. "Yes, opiod overdoses are a huge problem that we need to address — but the solutions that have been prescribed, including limiting doctors' ability to prescribe painkillers, aren't working. In fact, several studies have been shown that when these restrictions are put in place, we see a corresponding rise in overdose deaths.")
2. It's not about "winning." Yes, friendly debates can be fun, but don't argue to "win" or you'll lose more you'll gain. People rarely change their opinions in the course of one conversation; it's about opening the line of communication and slowly shifting their overton window over time. If you berate someone, they will only cling harder to their views and be less inclined to explore your ideas and whether they could make sense to them. Sometimes, you need to pull back, listen, and only contribute when the contribution is helpful or likely to be well-received. Moreover, when you have conversations publicly, especially on social media, you have a much wider audience than the person you're speaking with, all of whom are potentially persuadable as well. By being honest, genuine, polite, and open-minded, you are much more likely to win more people over to your side.
Hi Betty, Thanks for taking the time for the AMA! I'm wondering if you've been able to form any interesting (or perhaps even counterintuitve ) alliances on campuses? Do you do any work with any other groups who focus on substance abuse prevention or rehabilitation?
Yep, absolutely. We train and incentivize SSDPers to build coalition as part of any campaign strategy (or life strategy, tbh). We've worked with all sorts of groups, including groups representing folks in recovery who understand that prohibition causes more harm than drugs themselves -- and a surprising number of people in recovery get that!
Most surprising, to me, is the work we've done with faith groups. Many people of faith, and particularly most young people of faith, value compassion over moralizing, and see harm reduction and public health responses to drug issues in their communities as a mandate. They understand that stigmatizing, marginalizing, or criminalizing people who use drugs as cruel and out of line with their values, and many understand that the urgent problems in their communities can be repaired more readily if we take a compassionate approach (that happens to be supported by evidence).
I'd say that the most counterintuitive partnerships I've seen are between our chapters and campus/local police. Many of our chapters host "Know Your Rights" events with law enforcement representatives. A few of our chapters have even been invited to train campus cops on how to administer Naloxone (Naloxone is a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses)! It's counterintuitive because these people are literally the ones enforcing the prohibitionist policies we are fighting against. But on the other hand, we do share the very important and central goal of keeping students safe, so it makes a lot of sense on that level.
So true, Stacia! Last night, I heard a police chief tell a room full of 150 people that treatment, not criminalization, was the best way to handle drug-related problems, but he's forced to work with the laws he's given. Law enforcement is often given inappropriate deference in policy making, but when they're singing our tune, we'll take it!
Hello! Thanks for doing this. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what some of the major challenges to student organizing are on college campuses today, and how SSDP chapters work through roadblocks. For instance, when I was in college, we had a lot of trouble getting the administration to meet with us about changing campus policies, and even when we did manage to get their attention, they often just praised us for our opinions but didn't back it up with action. How would students today work through a problem like this?
Different campuses face very different environments, so it's hard to have a one-size-fits-all answer here. Perhaps the only one that holds true of ALL campus organizing is that continuity is always a big challenge because students graduate and move on from campus. On the campus level, that means that mentorship, delegation, and having a line of succession in mind is key throughout organizing. Always have an eye on what happens next year — and the one after that. SSDP is blessed to have a strong network of alumni who stay very involved in the organization, which we have cultivated via an official alumni association, alumni Facebook groups, discounts for alumi at events, an alumni cover band, alumni newsletter, alumni Facebook groups, and more.
Oh man, there are so many challenges to student organizing in general, even more for activists around (relatively) controversial causes. When I was an SSDP chapter leader at the University of Maryland, I wanted to get the school to implement a 911 Good Samaritan policy (more info if you're not familiar: https://ssdp.org/campaigns/#call911goodsamaritanpolicies). Very long story short, it took 7 years, lol. Most student organizations have such high turnover that it's rare for a campaign to continue on for that long. Thankfully, leadership transition was smooth and we had very strong membership at the time, so the leaders who came after me did an amazing job carrying the torch.
It involved getting SSDPers elected to the school's actual governing body (not to be confused with the Student Government Association, which could only make recommendations), then volunteering for specific committees that could influence that kind of policy, years of relationship building with the administrators, years of news coverage of our efforts that helped public opinion being in our favor, compromise, and so so so much diligence.
Every situation is different of course, so in a situation like you described, one of our Outreach Coordinators would walk them through a campaign plan and help them troubleshoot every step of the way.
Hello Betty and Stacia:) How do you guys feel personally about the recent U.S. District 9's decision to ban medical cannabis patients right to own firearms? Do you feel it's contradictory in the sense that several states affected under the jurisdiction are recreational legal for a cannabis, so in essence one can consume cannabis for recreation with no impedence but in the same state if one had a medical reason to consume and possess a licence to do such their rights are taken away. Do you think that this decision could be a stepping stone to remove more liberties from cannabis consumers in the future? What can be done at a grassroots level to combat such removal of liberties from cannabis consumers? Love you guys! Thanks for your input and taking the time to conduct this forum.
Thanks for asking this question, Trevor. While I'm sure there is likely to be a lot of disagreement in the drug policy community at large about this issue, I personally feel it is a travesty that patients' basic Constitutional rights are being attacked in this way. Furthermore, it opens the door for negative police interactions and searches in a way that legalization should be bringing an end to. I do think this is an important issue for local activists to work on, and luckily SSDP's model allows chapters to focus on teh policies they find most important at the local level. If you do decide to pursue this issue, I would suggest looking into the 2011 Montana movement to protect patients' gun rights as a model.
Thanks so much for doing the AMA! As an AnCap who works with both conservative and libertarian student organizations, I've realized that many young conservatives are starting to come around to becoming neutral on or for decriminalization. There still is some difficulty, however. Any advise on how to approach the conservative student in order to flip them on drug policy?
It's so great to have you guys here for an AMA! The city of Atlanta recently decriminzalized marijuana to a certain degree within city limits, and I was wondering what your view is of the legalization movement in Georgia as a whole, and what is SSDP doing within Georgia at the moment?
I don't think I can say much personally about the legalization movement in Georgia as a whole (because I don't live there myself) but I do know that we have some seriously badass student activists there: https://ssdp.org/chapters/southeast/georgia/ And they're much better suited to answer that question than I am. You can reach out to them through the link I included. Our students' work has mostly focused on non-marijuana drug policy issues (like helping to pass the 911 Good Samaritan law in 2014!) but our students also testified in favor of marijuana policy reforms on the city and local levels.
If you're a student leader with SSDP and you're curious about student leadership opportunities through FEE, pop over to my AMA! https://community.fee.org/topic/i-m-tricia-beck-peter-head-of-fee-s-campus-ambassador-program-ask-me-anything-friday-december-22nd-12-4pm/#e9224b85-84ec-4cb4-a6f1-a8510122c69c