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Courtesy of Alejandro Desince and Samantha Santoscoy /

Did you know that in 2011, High Times Magazine ranked Columbia University fifth in the United States for marijuana activism?

Perhaps unbeknownst to much of our student body, we owe this glorious title entirely to the efforts of a student group on campus at the time—Columbia’s chapter of an international grassroots organization called Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.

Between 2010 and 2012, under the leadership of Katharine Celentano, a 2016 graduate of the School of General Studies, SSDP had many triumphs on our campus. As the last Ivy League school to adopt a Good Samaritan Policy—a rule that protects students involved in drug- and alcohol-related emergencies from penalization when someone calls for medical help—the University eventually did so in response to pressure from Columbia’s chapter of SSDP. Celentano was the driving force behind this campaign and others, earning the title of SSDP’s “Chapter Leader of the Week” award in 2010 and “Outstanding Student Activist Award” in 2011.

Clearly, Columbia’s chapter of SSDP was once a force to be reckoned with, both on campus and among its fellow chapters of the organization. But within a few years after Celentano left Morningside Heights, it was no longer recognized by the University as a student organization. “After she left, it seemed that they had a year or two of activity at most, and then just nothing. Like the paper trail just kind of disappears,” Alejandro Patrick Desince, currently a junior at Columbia College says.

That is, until this academic year.

For the last eight months, Desince and Samantha “Sam” Santoscoy, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016, have been working together to revive a drug war activism—that is, activism against the War on Drugs and similar ideologies—student organization on campus. However, their new vision does not entirely comport with that of the international SSDP organization at large. Desince and Santoscoy are currently navigating the complicated process of separating from SSDP, restructuring their group, and redefining its mission and place on Columbia’s campus.

Although Santoscoy officially majored in neuroscience and behavior, she says, “I tell people I studied psychoactive drugs and behavior because that's really what it was.” In addition to working for the Washington Heights CORNER Project as a drug education specialist, she did substance use research at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

For the spring and fall semesters of 2016, Santoscoy was also a teaching assistant in the Drugs and Behavior class taught by world-renowned Dr. Carl Hart, who serves as the chair of Columbia's psychology department. Hart is one of the world’s leading experts on human interaction with drugs and was the University’s first tenured African-American professor of sciences. He had previously been the faculty adviser of SSDP after its founding at Columbia. Santoscoy says that when she and Desince told him they would officially be bringing back a new incarnation of the club, Hart was really excited to resume his position as the group’s adviser. It was in her role as a teaching assistant for Hart that Santoscoy first connected with Desince, a friend of one of her students.

When I ask which one of them initiated the revival of a drug war activism group at Columbia, both Santoscoy and Desince give the other credit. It is unclear to me whether modesty or genuine ambiguity motivates their divergent responses. Whatever the case may be, by August of last year, the two were serious about reigniting this student initiative.

Desince, who is of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent, was born and raised in “a low-income community of mostly people of color.” They tell me that they, along with all of the other students who have become involved in the organization, “know first-hand, or have experiences, or have friends or family that have been impacted by either drug-state violence or the prison-industrial complex, because of the drug war.”

Initially, the most sensible way of establishing a new drug war activism organization on campus seemed to be reviving a relationship with SSDP and becoming an official chapter once again. Although neither Desince nor Santoscoy had been previously involved in Columbia’s SSDP chapter, Santoscoy technically counts as an alum.

Between drags of a cigarette, she explains that she came across SSDP when looking for a drug-related internship for the summer after her junior year. In order to utilize the organization’s internship services, she said she was a part of Columbia’s chapter. That summer, Santoscoy ended up working for Cannasure—a “cannabis risk insurance” company.

Desince tells me that it seemed SSDP would provide Columbia’s new organization with the “widest network of resources” and strongest preexisting infrastructure. However, after Desince’s first meeting with SSDP’s regional Outreach Coordinator, Jake Agliata, at the end of September, it became clear to them both that Desince and Santoscoy’s vision and goals for the group were not reflected by the organization as a whole.

Desince stresses the importance of fighting against the drug war on not only a policy-based, or “institutional level,” but also an ideological level: “Without both of those things happening in tandem with one another, we're only going to get so far.” They explain that SSDP as an organization is very much focused on the institutional issues but often forgets the ideological foundations. “As a result, a lot of people are being left out of the conversation whose voices we really need in order to make the best changes to the status quo,” Desince says.

Santoscoy reiterates the notion that the major focus of SSDP on a national level is policy change—specifically, cannabis legalization. While she agrees that this is an important issue, it is also a “very white issue and not very representative of a lot of the other issues going on in these communities.” (She also notes that most of the people on SSDP’s board of trustees are in the cannabis sector.)

Instead of prioritizing policy change, Santoscoy espouses a philosophy of “education, treatment, and justice”—with education coming first and foremost. She explains that there are so many common misconceptions about the effect of drugs on the body and drug addiction, which “creates a miseducation about drugs, so no one really knows how to use things safely.”

When I inquire how this manifests on Columbia’s campus, Santoscoy repeatedly points to the example of Ask Alice, a Q&A internet resource provided by Columbia Health. She believes that Columbia’s health team behind Ask Alice does not do enough to provide students with information about safe use.

Throughout our conversations, both Desince and Santoscoy stress how important intersectionality and representation of those marginalized groups that have been most profoundly affected by the drug war is to their activism.

Desince acknowledges that SSDP does make an attempt to be more intersectional, with initiatives like its “monthly mosaics,” “which are supposed to be like monthly foci on more minority and marginalized identity-based work,” they explain. And while a monthly mosaic is better than nothing, Desince laments, “It's an initiative you talk about for a month, as opposed to just a standard. It's just like a little Band-Aid for it at the time.”

However, despite these differences, the group is hesitant to split off from SSDP entirely. There are undeniable advantages to being part of such a large, established, international organization—namely, access to resources.

Internships are a great example of this. Recalling her internship with Cannasure, which she landed thanks to SSDP’s services, Santoscoy tells me that it’s difficult to find an internship in the recreational drug industry. “It's hard to find an internship in drugs, frankly, and it would be good for our students to have that option, especially some paid ones,” she says. “The more resources we're able to give people, the better.”

Desince seems confident that the SSDP would better serve the group as a relationship, rather than a core part of its identity. But what this relationship between Columbia’s newly sprouting drug war activism organization and SSDP would entail is unclear to me. And it seems to be unclear to its leaders as well.

Desince tells with me with certainty that the group will “absolutely not” keep the name “Students for a Sensible Drug Policy,” as it would misrepresent its mission. However, the group’s Facebook page still is titled “Columbia University Students for a Sensible Drug Policy” and features SSDP’s logo as its cover photo. SSDP’s website also recognizes this group as a chapter of the organization founded in September of 2016. According to Santoscoy, the Columbia group “still trying to hash out the final details of how much we really want to divorce.”

To further complicate the student organization’s institutional identity, it is not currently recognized by—and therefore receives no funding from—the University. However, the group hopes to finish going through the recognition process as soon as possible.

Coming to understand that the organization is currently neither an officially Columbia-recognized student organization, nor exactly a chapter of SSDP, I find myself with one main question.

“So what do you actually do on campus right now?” I ask.

Desince and Santoscoy explain that the first thing they did was assemble, through word of mouth, an executive board of students interested in contributing to this initiative. “We really tried to make a board that would address the needs of everyone, of all the different drug users and background and whatnot. So a lot of Latinx and black representation, which is great,” Santoscoy tells me.

Among the eight students on the executive board are Desince’s roommate (Paulina), Paulina’s dance partner (Maria), a friend of and co-TA with Santoscoy (Stephanie), and Allyson Chavez—a junior at Columbia College and former student of Santoscoy who co-chaired the organization with Desince last semester before leaving to study abroad in Italy.

The group used to meet every Sunday night (in a window between everyone’s many other commitments) at Desince’s place, often with snacks. Lately, meetings have been less frequent because most of the students on the E-board are heavily involved in Columbia’s various Latinx identity-based student organizations.

More recently, the bulk of the group’s efforts have focused on planning events. Because it has virtually no money, the group has been putting on events in collaboration with other identity-based student organizations at Columbia—namely those in which the e-board members are involved.

Case in point, look at Desince. In addition to being co-chair of this organization, Desince is currently the co-chair of political engagement for the Student Organization of Latinxs (SOL), is involved with LUCHA, a Latinx social justice group working in solidarity with communities on and off campus, and serves as the philanthropy and service chair for the Mu chapter of the Phi Iota Alpha fraternity. They are involved with a group of students working on a proposal for a new governing board as well. Formerly, they were also the treasurer and co-chair of logistics for Project Identity, and the gender and sexuality chair at Chicanx Caucus.

This points to how significantly the group sees drug war activism intersect with other, more popularized forms of activism on campus. For instance, the organization did a film screening with SOL, and was very active during immigration week.

Looking into its (hopefully-funded future), the group has even bigger plans. Santoscoy’s most ambitious goal is to establish a drug-checking site for students to test if drugs they bought are actually what they claim to be. However, Santoscoy acknowledges that it will be a difficult battle because colleges don’t want to admit that their students use them. The same goes for her goal to reform Ask Alice’s responses to questions about drug use.

As well as continuing to co-host film screenings and book talks about intersectional issues like immigration and mass incarceration, she hopes to offer on-campus Naloxone trainings—which teach students to administer an opioid overdose antidote and potentially save lives.

“We can tell people all day not to drink, not to do drugs, but people are going to do them,” Desince tells me. “And because of that, you should take actual measures to respond to what can happen because people are consuming these, as opposed to always trying to make situations that will discourage people from doing them out of fear.”

In light of last weekend’s festivities, Santoscoy suggests specifically providing “education on how you should approach Bacchanal, both as a user and someone who would be observing users.” Desince also stresses the importance of equipping students with the skills to intervene if anyone is in a dangerous situation with drugs and hopes to encourage “more student intervention [during Bacchanal], as opposed to Columbia's Public Safety version of it, the ‘Lion Tamers,’ which agitate a lot of what can be already a potentially dangerous situation for someone on drugs.”

These goals seem to be rooted in a desire to make up for the deficit of drug education and discourse on campus. As this new organization grows in strength, they will only continue to bring such drug issues to the forefront of our campus conversation. 

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