“So, what’s drug use like on campus?”
It’s a question that leaves many a campus tour guide stammering “Well… um,” and that has countless prospective students whispering an embarrassed “Mom!” or “Dad!”
The well-honed response campus tour guides give to potential students and their families is, “You are going to find drug use at every school, but what makes New College students different is how they approach drug culture.” New has long been characterized as the “hippie school” of Florida, a title that it has both rejected and embraced over years. However, a unique aspect of New College’s campus culture is the student body’s passion for harm reduction efforts and drug policy advocacy, and the way in which numerous alums have continued on to careers in those very same fields. For the past 20 years and counting, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have played a pivotal part in this—organizing students, fighting for the right to provide resources and rallying for destigmatized and decriminalized drug policy reform on campus and beyond.
When SSDP was first established on campus in 2001 by a small group of students, the climate around drug-related activism was very different from what it is today, says alum Jag Davies (‘04).
“At the time, drug policy reform was considered more of a third rail issue,” Davies said. “Where now, drug policy reform has been embraced by elected officials from across the political spectrum.”
Already in these first years of SSDP, the club was working to provide safe spaces and education surrounding Center of the Universe Parties (COUPs), or as they were previously called, Palm Court Parties (PCPs). But Davies explains that their main focus was advocacy in the political arena.
“One of SSDP’s main focuses was opposing the institution of mandatory random student drug testing in public high schools, something that I think was a really big success,” Davies elaborated.
The club has also dedicated efforts to opposing protocols such as the Rave Act, another contentious policy at the time.
“[It] had a real chilling effect on festivals and nightclubs from providing harm reduction materials, because it implied that if the event promoter is distributing harm reduction materials, elaborated Davies. “That means they are acknowledging there’s drug use there.”
In an expansive sense, the first years of SSDP’s involvement on campus honed in on issues of mass incarceration and inequities in the justice system relating to drug use.
Previous SSDP president Hannah Hoogerwoerd (‘21) spoke to the positive traditions of community aid that are bolstered by SSDP’s work on campus.
“We’ve often created a safe space at PCP for students to get away from often overwhelming party environments—for a plethora of reasons, not just regarding substance use—but also to have a trauma-informed, safe space for students to find sanctuary,” Hoogerwoerd said.
Current SSDP student leaders thesis student Alexandra “Alex” Andrade and second-year Sophie Flem noted the club’s continued focus on providing resources for the student body.
“Every year, SSDP offers bystander intervention training before PCP, and we have PCP Fairies and Druids,” Andrade said.
The “Fairies and Druids” role is a volunteer-based community aid effort where “Fairies” take shifts walking around COUP with resources and water to check in on people and see if there is anything they need. Meanwhile, “Druids” stay in a specified calm space, which is transformed into a calming room complete with blankets, snacks and water to make sure that people who need an escape from the hectic party outside are comfortable.
“We also have hosted ‘Know Your Rights’ events for people to understand their rights when it comes to interactions with the police,” Andrade continued. “We also have provided information on harm reduction, such as how to safely take substances and mix substances. SSDP does not condone that, but we want to make sure that people are as safe as possible when they do make their own decisions.”
There have also been opportunities to engage with harm reduction methods and theory from an academic perspective, such as the recent “Substance Use and Harm Reduction” tutorial taught in the spring of 2019 by Visiting Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities Tabea Cornel.
“That tutorial was really informative and made me have a better understanding of the history of the war on drugs in the United States, and the difference that harm reduction can make,” Andrade added. “It sent me on a path, and now that is what I want to make a career out of.”
For many students, SSDP has provided a space to engage with topics of harm reduction from a variety of perspectives, and to be taken seriously in this important work.
“I came into New College with a really strong interest in neuroscientific research on psychedelics and the therapeutic uses of psychedelics,” Flem chimed in. “Which, of course, a lot of our alumni have worked in [that field].”
New College has produced numerous alums who have continued on to successful careers in the field of harm reduction and advocacy. Among these alums are Executive Director of Dancesafe Mitchell Gomez (‘07), founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Rick Doblin (‘87), co-founders of Erowid Earth Erowid (‘93) and Fire Erowid (‘92) and Davies, former policy researcher for the ACLU and Director of Communications for MAPS, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
Despite the opportunities that groups like SSDP provide for students, Flem notes that it is also a space where their hobbies and interests can converge.
“I’ve also always been interested in studying the politics of the war on drugs and how it contributes in general to the larger prison industrial complex in our country,” Flem said.
“I really am super passionate about teaching students about how to be as safe as possible if they are to take drugs or substances of any sort,” Flem continued. “Especially this year, when it looked like there wasn’t any sign of SSDP happening again, I got kind of freaked! So I reached out to the previous leader, and she said that they hadn’t found anyone to run it this year. I said, ‘Okay, I am happy to re-register the organization and see if anyone else is interested in joining me again.’”
Conflicts with Administration
Even as SSDP strives to bring a valuable resource to the campus community, their efforts have not always been well-received by administration.
“There was definitely a strange dynamic at the time,” Davies said, recalling his years working with SSDP. “While I was in college, I started working with several alums who had very successful careers in drug policy reform. But I could sense that there was skepticism from the administration. There was this cognitive dissonance for me, because the school publicly presents itself as being ahead of the curve on science and following evidence-based policies. But when it comes to drugs, there’s often people in positions of power who let irrational fears get in their way.”
Davies explained that this mentality often led to decisions being made by administrators that were not evidence-based or in the best interest of the health and safety of students. Davies said that he could understand “why the administration has to be careful with their public image,” but maintained that “there was a real lack of awareness of science and how politics have evolved on these issues over the years.”
Hoogerwoerd offered a compelling statement, addressing the struggle of balancing administration-imposed restrictions with SSDP’s mission to offer resources.
“SSDP has always worked to try and provide safe and accepting spaces for students seeking ways to take care of themselves and one another, especially an overwhelming party environment,” Hoogerwoerd said. “In recent years this has been challenged by administrative powers, who have misperceived SSDP’s goals and purpose, repeatedly trying to shut it down on false assumptions and out of fear for the school’s image. Overdose incidents in the past on campus led to student’s acknowledgement of the need for substance-oriented harm reduction on campus. However, at the same time, administration seized upon this issue as a reason to crack down further on the action that students were taking to address substance use.”
“Whether the club was providing education on drug interactions, legal or illegal, doing bystander intervention trainings or bringing awareness to the pitfalls of the war on drugs, the club faced backlash,” Hoogerwoerd continued. “Administration purely attached stigma to any effective harm reduction efforts as ‘encouraging drug use,’ which they saw as contributing to a negative image of New College—which is a faulty and dangerous path to take.”
Hoogerwoerd elaborates with specific examples of this issue,
“After a student involved in harm reduction was threatened with expulsion, the severity of the situation on campus gained attention in 2019,” Hoogerwoerd said. “Our chapter received the Grace Under Fire award from SSDP Global for resilience against the backlash, acknowledging that despite how widespread stigma can be, the tension with administration at New College was considerably more serious than chapters at other institutions were facing at the time.”
“I have much hope that with the recent changes in administration, students will be able to implement safety measures and access to resources with a common sense understanding that these actions protect the community,” Hoogerwoerd continued, looking towards the future. “I was really instilled with an idea that we have to be careful to not get shut down and not be too loud and proud about what we do. But it’s not that we necessarily have to hide if we’re not doing anything wrong or illegal, but it was always a concern.”
In more recent years, students have faced further pushback from administration on their efforts to provide harm reduction resources on campus.
“There was an issue a few years back because they wanted the name of the chill room changed because they thought it promoted substances, but that very much goes against the values of harm reduction,” Andrade said.
“We are completely willing to try to work with administration to navigate around obstacles so that we can offer these resources,” Flem added.
Not only does SSDP provide an opportunity for students to connect and educate one another on these topics while at New, but it has inspired highly successful careers in the field of harm reduction and advocacy.
“I’ve seen many people around me who were negatively affected by a lack of knowledge on harm reduction, so I’ve been interested in harm reduction before I even knew what it was,” Andrade expressed. “Coming here, the more I learned about it, the more that it became important to me.”
Andrade explained that she intends to go into a career in harm reduction, but finds the dissonance between the success former SSDP members have had in professional spheres and the school’s pushback towards SSDP efforts to be a bit discouraging.
“I think it would be really cool if the school embraced our relationship to the alumni in these areas, instead of distancing ourselves, because it’s really something special about New College history, and these people [alums] are really successful,” Andrade entreats.
“While some other schools might be more known for their party culture—in terms of issues like binge drinking or Greek life—I don’t think that it should be seen as a detriment to New College that we have this culture and history where instead we are passionate about harm reduction and increasing safety,” Andrade continued, sighing. “We should be proud of that. It is a part of our institutional history.”
“Students are actually drawn here in terms of our history,” Flem said, echoing Andrade’s feelings. “Because of the people who do research with psychedelics, who are actually going to raves and setting up tables to give people advice, counseling and to offer help and test kits. At its core, we need—as students—to look out for the safety of other students, because this information might not get disseminated to people otherwise.”
Hoogerwoerd also advocated for the impact that SSDP has had on student life.
“Students have often expressed to us at PCP that they really appreciate the mission and that it makes them feel safe during parties,” Hoogerwoerd said. “It also just shows the role that the community can play in fostering a sense of exceptional acceptance, and in looking out for each other”.
Concerning the future of SSDP’s work on campus, Andrade and Flem were enthusiastic.
“In terms of collaborating with administration, I and another SSDP member—who is really passionate about Narcan as a resource—are working on training people on how to use and distribute Narcan,” Flem beamed.
Flem explained that this initiative is being worked on in collaboration with administration, and that they are exploring the legal technicalities of distributing Narcan on campus in congruence with General Counsel David Fugett.
“Right now it seems that the only people who have Narcan for sure are the police forces, which is not ideal, because that could possibly dissuade people from seeking help when they need it,” Flem explained. “It is one of our biggest items on our agenda for this year, to get someone to come in and train people on how to use Narcan.”
“It is really important for us to educate people on how to recognize the signs of an overdose and how to use Narcan properly,” Andrade chimed in.
Flem also noted that they are working on other initiatives, such as handing out HIV testing kits, information about drug combinations and effects and giving students other physical harm reduction resources at future events throughout the year.
Flem also emphasized that if there are people who are interested in a certain topic or want to get involved with SSDP, that they “reach out to the organization and let us know what they need or what they would like to see!” They continued, issuing an invitation “for people to share what they like and what they have an interest in seeing in the programming we do.”
“I love that New College is such a special place where the students approach everything in our lives with a well-rounded education and awareness of intersectionality,” Andrade said with a sentimental air. “It is so cool that we can bring this knowledge even when we are just trying to party.”