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How Students Are Using Harm Reduction To Fight The Drug War

As one activist puts it: 'Movements start on college campuses, but they don’t end on college campuses'

By Adryan Corcione

Amidst an opioid overdose crisis while the rich cash out on a new cannabis marketplace, students today are navigating ways to dismantle the stigma drug users often face, and help communities most impacted by the drug war. Whether they’ve experienced a death of a classmate, have a personal story of addiction, or have witnessed incarceration in action, young organizers and activists are fighting back using harm reduction framework, which is rooted in combating stigma against users.

According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, harm reduction is defined as a “set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use …. [and] a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” Essentially: If we, as a culture, are more compassionate towards drug users, it’s more likely they’ll ask for help should they need it.

Dominique Coronel, who is a junior at DePaul University and Vice President of the campus Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter, knows firsthand how harmful stigma against drug use can be. “I came into this work because of my lived experiences, being orphaned by the War on Drugs, losing my mother to addiction and drugs [and] my father to incarceration of drugs,” he explained to MTV News.

SSDP is a national drug policy reform organization with student-led chapters on university campuses. Their work is the latest extension of the long history of colleges and universities serving as hubs for drugs and social movements. In the late ‘60s, students protested the Vietnam war, and also experimented with psychedelics. Fifty years later, the Black Lives Matter movement, which quickly spread to campuses, shed more light onto the racialized War on Drugs.

Now in Chicago, DePaul SSDP students successfully lobbied for the school’s now-established opioid overdose and response protocol, which launched in January 2019. In addition to training staff on overdose reversal by community addiction specialists at the one of the country’s largest Catholic universities, nearly 30 buildings on campus have a kit containing four doses of Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose if administered properly in a timely fashion, making access to the product and training essential to reduce overdose-related deaths.

This group isn’t leaving their advocacy behind in the classroom, though. “Movements start on college campuses, but they don’t end on college campuses,” Coronel added.

Given the drug war isn’t exclusive to just opioids, DePaul students are also advocating for cannabis legalization that isn’t just for the rich and white. Their work couldn’t come at a better time: Illinois lawmakers recently passed a 533-paged recreational legalization bill focused on social equity, which the Los Angeles Times reports includes an allowance of possession of 30 grams for those 21 and over, an expungement program for cannabis-related misdemeanor and Class 4 felony convictions, and a $20 million low-interest loan program to diversify business ownership.

“This cannabis bill is one that is going to be legalized not just for the rich, the white, and the privileged, but one that is going to have real equity reinvested into communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs — Black communities, Brown communities, poor communities,” Coronel told MTV News before the bill passed.

He and his peers focused some of their work on pushing back against a bill provision that still allows those 20 and under to be criminalized for possession. While legislators have insisted cannabis reform would be enforced like alcohol, with fines and up to a  year of incarceration, Coronel knows “those kind of laws are enforced differently across different communities and it’s gonna target Black and Brown youth.” It’s an extension of the school-to-prison pipeline, he stressed.

Illinois isn’t alone in the fight, either. Students at the University of North Georgia—Gainesville are focusing on a petition to decriminalize cannabis in Hall County, especially given that Republican Governor Brian Kemp recently signed a bill to enact a medical marijuana program, allowing residents to consume low-THC oil medically. However, if you’re caught with only two ounces of weed in the Peach state, you could be sentenced to up to a decade behind bars, says the Marijuana Policy Project.

“Living in Georgia, it’s really hard to get this kind of [decriminalization] legislation passed through due to the fact it is a pretty conservative state in most areas,” Erin Conway, who served as president of the UNGG SSDP in spring 2019, told MTV News.

Conway and her peers expressed fear when Governor Kemp was elected in 2018; while he approved the state’s medical marijuana program, the program is limited to cannabis oil. And given that the state has yet to launch a legal market with dispensaries, over 8,400 registered patients have still relied on obtaining products illegally, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Rather than working with lawmakers directly, she finds more value in speaking with constituents and raising awareness about legalization. This summer, they’re gearing up to gather petition signatures in popular spots throughout the county, such as Lake Lanier.

“Slowly but surely, things have been starting to progress” on the decriminalization front, she added. Some parts of the state, for instance, have already passed their own measures. Leafly reports Atlanta unanimously passed to decriminalize possession in October 2017, now making an ounce punishable to up to a $75 fine.

However, there’s still progress to be made. “We’re in a dense urban environment, meaning it’s not just students, but the community in general,” Hunter Knight, who previously attended UNGG but now attends UNG’s Atlanta campus, explained. “Even though [UNGA] itself doesn’t have a huge party dorm scene, it’s in the middle of a city, so there’s a lot of nightlife.”

Like most higher-education institutions, UNGA requires incoming students to participate in an online alcohol course in hopes discouraging a culture of binge drinking. Similarly to most U.S. sex education curriculum, these courses are rooted in abstinence, which research has proven to be ineffective. That’s why the school’s SSDP chapter focuses on educational safer partying strategies in the city’s EDM club scene, such as instructing peers on how to test MDMA for harder drugs.

“[Our work is] along those same guidelines, but without the biased approach of ‘Don’t do this at all’ or ‘You should never mix this and that,’” he elaborated. “We put it through a ‘what if’ standard, because at the end of the day, we all know it’s up to whoever is doing the substance if they’re going to do it or not. You can't tell someone no.”

In states without legal markets, it’s even more crucial for individuals to speak on their personal experiences, especially in the absence of established and organized advocacy groups. While the Lone Star state has yet to legalize, it’s certainly coming — but with lots of pushback. According to the Texas Tribune, state legislators are working on a limited medical marijuana program. Additionally, the same lawmakers are also working on a decriminalization bill, but it’s unlikely it will pass into law anytime soon.

Due to the prohibitionist climate, Texas Tech senior Kassi Scarlett experienced criticism when trying to form a campus chapter of the Student Marijuana Alliance for Research and Transparency, a national network dedicated to combating cannabis stigma through education, research, and professional development. To be recognized officially by the school, she needed a faculty member to commit as an advisor, but even that was too risky for staff sign off on.

While she is working on continuing the legacy after her graduation in three months, she remains a solo student ambassador — but one person can contribute to the movement on their own, even in a Red and prohibitionist state. Growing up, she experienced pushback from her Christian household for cannabis use, but understood the plant’s cultural significance and medicinal benefits through her Jamaican heritage. Ever since, she’s assumed the responsibility of spreading the knowledge and raising awareness among friends and peers.

“I know what [cannabis] does for me, and I know how much better of a life I can live with it — I use it for my depression and appetite loss,” she told MTV News. As an adult, she saw her friends [consuming cannabis] and she felt moved to educate them on safe consumption, such as how to maximize cannabis use without sinking into the couch all day. Now, they go to her about specific products and their effects.

By being vocal about their own consumption, young people can pave the way towards a cultural shift. While lawmakers feud over policy reform, Scarlett believes the work is already being done. “I think because the stigma is starting to break in general, and it’s widely advertised just like anything else in recent years, people are becoming comfortable with it,” she added.

“The more mainstream it becomes, the less people around me have [been] thinking of smokers as just ‘stoners.’ In my situation, my friends see how productive and responsible I am, so just witnessing that has flipped a switch for them about what it looks like to be a ‘user.’”