SSDP models student-led approach to drug literacy

Regardless of their schools’ strict drug and alcohol policies, a number of college students at Vassar and across the country do use drugs. Therefore, campus efforts ought to be focused on educating students objectively on the realities of drug use and abuse, rather than reprimanding them for the act of using. After noticing students taking drugs during events such as Founder’s Day without the knowledge to use them safely, President of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) Ann Tartakoff ’19 was inspired in the spring of 2016 to begin a student organization that neither encouraged nor condemned drug use, but rather sought to educate and protect individuals participating in drug culture. SSDP was recently promoted to full org status by the Vassar Student Association (VSA) on Sept. 17 in recognition of its work educating students about drug safety.

SSDP at Vassar is a chapter of an international organization that is based in Washington, D.C. However, as Tartakoff specified, each chapter has its own projects unique to its campus, with the only overarching structure being a yearly conference.

SSDP holds meetings every Wednesday at 9 p.m. in Rockefeller Hall where students come together to plan initiatives to make Vassar a safer and more comfortable space for students who want to understand drug culture and policy. Tartakoff commented, “[There is a] gap in knowledge that we as students have the resources to fill,” and she highlighted that education is key. She cited the large number of Wesleyan students hospitalized for Molly overdoses in 2015 as a prime example, noting that they could have been prevented if there had been more access to education on drug abuse available on campus.

SSDP plans to provide safety education, especially regarding stimulants and psychedelics, which are both frequently abused on Vassar’s campus. SSDP also intends to conduct safety presentations before Halloweekend and set up a tent at the event to provide a space for people reacting badly to drugs. SSDP also seeks to find crossovers with other forms of activism on campus—as well as in Poughkeepsie and New York in general—and collaborate with other orgs in order to promote harm reduction education in conversations about public health, drug use and ineffective drug policies.

As a result of SSDP’s full org status, it has received funding that will allow it to access more resources than it had with its budget as a pre-org. Tartakoff explained, “[We want] to make testing kits a consistent presence because thus far we’ve really only been able to do them on Founder’s Day and Halloween.” SSDP’s increased funding should give them the means to implement such projects.

Additionally, SSDP seeks to work with the administration, from which they have previously faced resistance, especially when they sought to combat the new party rules that were put into place last semester. Despite these administrative hurdles, SSDP has worked with the Office of Health Education to draft and publish information concerning safe alcohol/drug use, and the resulting posters are distributed before Halloween and Founder’s Day. SSDP plans to continue this collaboration this year. Moreover, members of SSDP attend the Alcohol Task Force meetings, furthering their engagement with the Vassar administration.

Of course, the administration’s role in maintaining a safe, healthy and informed environment for students should not be understated. As the College’s Drug and Alcohol Policy states, “Vassar would like to emphasize that its primary goal is to educate students on the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.” Students like those in SSDP are committed to this goal as well.

While we acknowledge the positive effects of administration-implemented programs such as the online drug and alcohol safety and bystander intervention trainings required for all incoming students, we recognize that ongoing campus discussion and education is indispensable. We feel that though the administration’s involvement is essential, student-led initiatives like SSDP are often the best means by which to educate our peers on making healthy and safe decisions.

Orgs, for one, generally maintain greater visibility than the administration does among students. There is also great potential for collaboration among different orgs, which combines their individual knowledge and resources for the benefit of students. Finally, since orgs are comprised of and work mainly with students, a more comprehensive view of campus culture is more readily available to them.

This crucial perspective is often lacking with regards to the administration. Despite their declared dedication to education on the topic, the College’s approach to drug and alcohol use often comes off as reactionary in nature, rather than in the form of sustained support and helpful information for safer choices. Reactionary policies and their often hasty and obscure implementation—such as the inadequate and unsatisfactory party rules put in place last fall that prohibited hard liquor at registered parties—do not promote a climate of safety and support. What we believe is more effective is the collaboration between the College and the student body in creating a safe environment without furthering a disciplinary tone or reducing student agency. We believe that student orgs that dedicate their time to promoting informed and healthy behaviors on our campus are an ideal conduit through which to encourage such valuable collaboration.

We at The Miscellany News would thus like to champion the work of SSDP and the VSA’s decision to fast-track the group’s promotion to full org status. SSDP’s increased budget will afford them more agency in implementing their ideas, and we believe that the College should support these initiatives and the goals of other similarly beneficial orgs in any way that it can. One such org is Big Night In (BNI), and we commend the VSA for recognizing the importance of BNI’s substance-free programming and for the Senate’s commitment in general to incentivizing additional and more inclusive programming on campus.

We are hopeful that the administration, led by President Bradley—a public health policy expert—will commit to both amending existing drug and alcohol policies for the better and to uplifting the important work of dedicated students and orgs in making our campus safer and more informed about its health.

Protecting the best interests of the College with regard to student safety should not stand in contradiction to students’ own best interests. The solutions are out there, and students themselves should be at the forefront of informing one another about their health and of establishing policies that promote a safer campus.

Orgs such as SSDP are already doing important work in promoting safer and more informed practices and in addressing the intersections between health, politics, activism and identity. It is imperative that the College support these and other such orgs’ initiatives, and make an active effort to gain a realistic view of student concerns and campus conditions to avoid implementing harmful or counterproductive policies that address substance use.

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