Young people throughout the world drive the movement to end the War on Drugs. They also remain a demographic highly targeted by police over drugs, and are vulnerable to overdose and other health consequences of the drug war.
On February 23, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) announced Jason Ortiz to serve as its new executive director. He follows Betty Aldworth, who served in the role for six years. Ortiz is now tasked with overseeing a global network of over 370 chapters on campuses in 33 countries.
“I know the weight of the challenge,” he said, “and I’m ready to take it on.”
SSDP was formed in 1998, when President Bill Clinton signed into law amendments to the Higher Education Act that allowed the federal government to deny financial aid to college and university students convicted of low-level drug charges.
Thanks in part to SSDP’s activism, Congress later amended this law in 2009. After that point, students could only be denied federal financial aid if they were convicted on a drug charge while already receiving aid. In late 2020, Congress finally eliminated this form of discrimination altogether.
In the past two decades, SSDP members have fought around the country and world for many causes—including, for example, to legalize marijuana in Colorado; to provide immunity when calling 911 for a drug overdose in Georgia; to decriminalize plant-based psychedelics in Santa Cruz; and to provide free drug tests for students in the UK.
When members aren’t advocating in state houses or city councils, they are giving fellow students simple but lifesaving information—like how to spot the signs of an opioid overdose, the risks of combining MDMA with alcohol or other depressants, or how to avoid hepatitis C transmission while using cocaine.
“Policy then became very important to me, and I learned that a very small tweak can have a huge impact on someone’s life.”
Jason Ortiz, who is SSDP’s first Latinx director, knows firsthand how SSDP’s work can change lives. At age 16, he was caught with a small amount of marijuana and arrested. In addition to criminal possession, he was charged with intent to sell to a minor. Ortiz was expelled from his high school, and for the next several years endured court battles and fines.
He eventually graduated high school, and later went on to study at the University of Connecticut. There, he joined a campus chapter of SSDP.
“That was when I learned how they reformed the Higher Education Act,” he said. “I remember while applying to UConn, I had to check a box that I’d had a drug arrest, but I was eventually able to go. I didn’t realize that SSDP made it possible for me to go to college.”
“I’m very thankful that activists before me did this work,” he continued. “I’m someone who was both negatively impacted by the War on Drugs but also positively impacted by the movement to end it. Policy then became very important to me, and I learned that a very small tweak can have a huge impact on someone’s life.”
Ortiz then joined SSDP’s student board, which helps the organization fundraise. After college, he moved on to fight against the death penalty with Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. He has also worked with Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda, on issues related to justice for Puerto Rican Americans like himself.
Oritz has also served on the board of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), which has worked with state and local governments to reform marijuana laws, with a focus on racial and economic justice.
I spoke with Ortiz about how he plans to expand SSDP’s membership and fight the drug policy battles of tomorrow. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Alexander Lekhtman: What are your priorities in your new role?
Jason Ortiz: We have to transition to make SSDP a racial justice organization. Many students have expressed to me this is an important priority they feel wasn’t being fulfilled. We were not meeting our obligations as far as addressing racial justice in the War on Drugs and in the movement to end it.
I’m a Puerto Rican who spends a lot of time with Spanish-speaking people and addressing issues that aren’t so American-centric. I believe I can start to create programs and partnerships with folks outside the US. As our students and leadership becomes more global, we have to think about things like multilingual communication across different time zones. How do we communicate across continents and organize around policy? That’s where I think I can come in and fill the void.
[On a practical level] Number one is fundraising, and making sure that SSDP is growing steadily. Second to that is training and management of the staff.
Right now we’re reorganizing to become a fully digital and remote organization, at a time when campus and student activism is also going very remote. My job is to reorient the organization to this post-COVID world where in-person organizing is very difficult, and broaden our digital reach to Twitch, Youtube and social media.
What does it mean for SSDP to become a racial justice organization?
We need to be culturally conscious of all our different communities, and make sure that our leadership and decisions accurately involve and empower them to be leaders in this space.
When I was a student SSDP was very white and very male. Under Aldworth’s leadership, it became much less male and we had a lot more women leadership, but it’s still very white and we haven’t had many people of color in leadership roles. Coming from one of those communities, I believe I can get more people of color in leadership and action, more communities of color to want to adopt SSDP’s ethos and name.
I think SSDP is in a fantastic spot, because these communities are very curious about drugs and drug policy as all these laws are changing in different states. Where before there was a lot of backlash against people talking about drugs in communities of color, now I think folks are interested in learning more.
And students are seeing more policies in their states around issues like cannabis equity. These are very specific policies addressing racial justice, and they want to both better understand these and write similar policies for all different drugs.
Internally for SSDP, we have to be able to talk about all kinds of power dynamics around race, gender, homophobia, or any other barrier for communities to join us. I have to review all our outreach materials and process and make sure they are inclusive in language but also generate results to bring people in.
What are your plans for helping students understand and directly impact policy reform?
When I first started with SSDP, we would tell our folks to go out and push on a handful of statewide campaigns. But I want to see students more directly engaged in campus and local policies, especially for youth justice. I want to encourage students to draft their own laws. I learned at MCBA what it means to write your own laws and push your own perspective.
When I was with SSDP in New York, we had an idea for a reform to require all our school safety officers be equipped with naloxone—but it didn’t go anywhere. How would you have helped us figure out a plan of action?
In that example, you are tweaking an existing law or regulation. Here’s the idea: Instead of saying, “We want to have the guards carry naloxone,” SSDP will propose a new code of conduct—that includes carrying naloxone. We want to look at this more broadly—what is the role of guards on campus and how do we want to change that?
When students are using their own policy that they’ve drafted, they’ll show more ownership and fight more effectively.
What’s important is you’re shifting how folks look at the underlying process, rather than focusing on one specific policy change. Second: Who is in charge of moving forward and making these decisions? When students are using their own policy that they’ve drafted, they’ll show more ownership over it and they will fight more effectively to pass it.
This takes longer and requires more training and support so folks know the process of creating policy. But that investment makes a stronger activist and chapter wherever they are, and helps them speak with greater credibility.
And we want students to push their ideas in multiple forums, rather than just focusing on one victory and moving on. You want to advocate at the levels of student government, municipality, or board of trustees.
Too often we look at policy reform very narrowly, where one person or entity has all the power. In reality there’s always many moving pieces and people involved.
Can you give a specific example of how this could work in practice?
Let’s say you’re a high school student and you want to change your code of conduct. We will bring stakeholders together to decide what they want. That’s the first question to ask. Only a group can decide that and sometimes it takes several meetings to understand that.
From there we then look at other places that may already have this policy. If you want to decriminalize cannabis possession on campus, ask if there’s any schools in the country who have done this. You’ll find a handful with different policies. You’ll collect that information, see what’s out there, and see if you can lift their language.
If your idea has never been done, you’ll have to visualize what you want on paper. Then you can bring in lawyers who can help you draft it into law.
Next you bring it public and see what people say. Some may be upset with your policy, some will be happy and want to help out. Now you’re building a coalition around your policy, and you come to understand what are your resources, and who are your supporters or opponents. That will tell you what is your path to getting it passed.
I believe SSDP is where any student will come to learn how to be a better community organizer and policy leader—where they will find training and find folks who care about the same issues as them.
At my college in New York, I would often table on campus and was amazed at how hard it was to recruit people—and I’ve heard the same from other folks around the country. I thought this should be a no-brainer! Why aren’t people lining up around the building to help us end the drug war?
We need to make sure that when folks are recruited, we’re framing these problems and their solutions in a way that includes them. You do that through having diverse leadership, but also by talking about diverse subject matter. You can’t just talk about cannabis or psychedelics all the time.
With regards to getting our communities to take us more seriously, that comes back to the policy drafting phase. If you invite other community members to help you draft policy from the beginning, they’ll feel more included because they were literally included in the creation. Doing that work helps people take you more seriously and want to help you.
Unfortunately a lot of organizing starts with the whole plan and then asks other people to sign on, and folks just don’t come in.
So ask yourself: Who is at the table with you from the beginning?
Photograph courtesy of Jason Ortiz