DARE to resist the war on drugs: New club focuses on decriminalization, education and harm reduction on- and off-campus
The Justice spoke to Zach Kaufman ’22, Jaiden Wolfman ’23 and Ali Carney M.A. ’22 about Brandeis Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Students flipped through a stack of 4x6 cards, examining the different designs on each one and picking one or two out of the pile before passing the stack along. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake the trippy designs on glossy cardstock as nothing more than an opportunity to add some color to a blank dorm wall.
On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the cards are more than just something to look at — each design contains the name of a different drug in colorful lettering to match the background. Flipping the card over reveals a much less visually exciting but far more informative bulleted list in small black type. The bullet points contain information about the effects, standard doses and risks associated with the drug on the front of the card, as well as harm reduction tips.
At the inaugural meeting of the Brandeis chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) on Sept. 19, magic mushrooms, cannabis, MDMA, alcohol, 2C-B, speed and other mind-altering substances were all up for grabs in the form of informational cards. Attendees also picked from piles of brightly colored stickers displaying phrases such as “The War on Drugs is a War on Us.”
At the meeting, Ali Carney, a second-year graduate student at Heller, and Jaiden Wolfman ’23 stood at the front of the room, welcoming students as they arrived and encouraging them to take as many cards and stickers as they liked. Zach Kaufman ’22 was also at the front of the classroom, but he was attending remotely, shown on a laptop screen facing the group.
The three group leaders, who refer to themselves as “co-leaders,” were connected by an SSDP coordinator after they all reached out separately about starting a chapter at Brandeis. Kaufman was the first to reach out to the organization back in the spring semester of 2020 and held an introductory interest meeting on campus. “(Extra)ordinary students working to end our campus drug war and amplify education on harm reduction,” the club’s Instagram biography reads. The group announced its launch on the account in late June, but as a result of the pandemic, Kaufman decided to take a year off school, and the group did not continue to meet.
With the COVID-19 restrictions being loosened along with the recent pushes for decriminalization that have resulted in reform being passed in cities in Massachusetts and across the country, the co-organizers explained that it seemed like the perfect time to start this club.
“There's just so much momentum right now nationwide in this topic, but also specifically in Massachusetts,” Wolfman told the Justice during a Zoom interview on Sept. 13. “There will never be a better time to kind of get your foot in the door and try to ask for policy change than right now.”
Brandeis is now among more than 300 schools across more than 30 countries with an SSDP chapter on campus. The organization, started by students in 1998, focuses on pushing for decriminalization of drugs through policy reform, providing education about drugs and drug use and promoting harm reduction.
In their mission statement on their website, SSDP describes itself as “an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact of drug misuse on our communities, but who also know that the ‘War on Drugs’ is failing our generation and our society.”
The handful of students who showed up were clearly enthusiastic about being there. During introductions, everyone shared why they were interested in joining the club. Both the leaders and attendees spoke about their support for decriminalizing drugs and ending America’s drug war.
In the more than 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, the United States has taken aggressive efforts to eliminate drug use through the creation of sweeping laws with harsh punishments for people found guilty of using or selling illegal drugs. Policies developed as part of the drug war have led to higher levels of policing and police authority and dramatic increases in incarceration rates, which have impacted low-income urban areas and communities of color most severely, based on U.S. census data.
When sharing what fueled them to want to take action to support decriminalization reform, students spoke about ways that the war on drugs connects to and contributes to racism, mass incarceration and other societal issues.
Speaking to the Justice ahead of the club’s first meeting, Carney said that in recent years, there has been a major increase in public awareness of the intersections between the disenfranchisement of people and groups and the criminalization of drug use.
When the discussion turned to specific types of organizing and activism that SSDP Brandeis would be involved in, Wolfman told the group, “We want to hear from everyone what you guys are interested in.” Attendees shared ideas for on-campus actions and various Brandeis groups that SSDP could collaborate with. One student suggested hosting a teach-in to provide education on drugs, decriminalization and harm reduction. Wolfman brought up the idea of hosting a harm reduction tent at SpringFest with free resources to help keep students safe.
The group talked about the school’s approach to student drug use and how drug policies are enforced on campus by the Department of Community Living and Public Safety. Everyone at the meeting seemed to agree that changes need to be made and that students should not face major consequences for personal drug use. The group hopes to see the university transform its approach to student drug use. Kaufman told the Justice that, rather than trying to completely eradicate the use of illegal substances on campus by punishing students for using them, Brandeis should focus on taking steps to make sure that students who choose to use these substances are as safe and informed as possible.
“We don't want students to be discriminated against and have their education taken away from them because of substances that they use that affect them personally,” Wolfman added.
Some attendees at the meeting talked about their personal experiences with drug use, including their own or their family members’ use of drugs for medicinal purposes.
The leaders said that they want the club to be a safe space for students to talk about their substance use experiences, as well as to ask questions and receive harm reduction education to help them stay safe.
“We want to be there to provide resources so that students who are using aren't going to be harmed by these substances and have resources where they feel safe to talk about their use instead of hiding it, which then just leads to dangerous situations,” Wolfman said.
Another main topic of discussion was supporting decriminalization efforts in Waltham. The leaders shared a list of local organizations that could be potential collaborators for community activism.
One organization that SSDP Brandeis has already started working with is Bay Staters for Natural Medicine. They are a Massachusetts grassroots organization that has led successful decriminalization campaigns in cities such as Somerville and Cambridge, which have decriminalized entheogenic plants (which include psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca, among others).
The group leaders also told attendees that the organization is planning to deliver a proposal to the Waltham city council, and they discussed the possibility of reaching out to city council members to encourage them to support drug policy reform in Waltham.
Speaking to the Justice about the intersections between decriminalization and harm reduction efforts at Brandeis and in the Waltham community, Wolfman said, “You can’t have one without the other,” making it clear that the goals of SSDP Brandeis are supporting decriminalization reform in Waltham and on-campus, in addition to providing education and harm reduction strategies for both communities.
Towards the end of the hour-long meeting, Kaufman said, “We don’t condone or condemn drug use,” and students continued to share different ideas and bring up more topics, excited about the possibilities for SSDP Brandeis. After the leaders eventually brought the discussion to a close, some students left the classroom, colorful drug information cards in hand.
Others stayed behind for a few minutes to chat, examining the different cards, joking about the designs and commenting on which drugs they had and hadn’t heard of. Wolfman admitted that she didn’t actually know what 2-CB is. As it turns out, neither did anyone else.
As the classroom emptied out, the energy in the room was optimistic. Of course, it will take far more than cardstock and stickers to achieve drug policy reform on campus and in Waltham, but SSDP Brandeis is just getting started.