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As young people, we’ll have to live with the implications and consequences of drug policies for the rest of our lives. That’s why it’s up to us to create more sensible and effective ways to deal with the real and complex issues of drug abuse and addiction. As students on college campuses, we have a unique opportunity to take the lead in formulating and enacting alternative drug policies. With a broad network of students on college campuses across the country implementing an array of different policies, we have the chance to see what actually works and what doesn’t.

So, what is sensible campus drug policy? The answer to this question will vary from college to college, depending on the different situations and environments students face. But we definitely do know that punitive prohibitionist policies cause much more harm than they prevent. And we also know that drug education and treatment are much more effective than punishment for people who have real problems. Institutions of higher education are charged with educating their students and helping them become responsible and successful adult citizens. Colleges shouldn’t be in the business of looking for extra reasons to punish students. So at a bare minimum, suspension, expulsion, and police arrests should be taken off the table. Limited campus drug prevention resources should be put into making sure that students have access to accurate and reality-based drug information and education and that all students who need or want drug treatment are able to get it. A sensible campus drug policy will generally be nonpunitive, will offer help to all students who want or need it, and will involve students in the process of formulating and implementing policies that primarily affect us.

This grassroots guide offers suggestions and resources to students who want to change the drug policies on their own campuses.

I. Surveying the Landscape

1) The first thing you’ll need to do is determine the state of drug policy on your campus. You can do this by accessing your school’s written drug policy in the student handbook or on the web, or by talking to faculty and staff members. Under federal law (See Appendix I), any institution of higher education that receives federal funding (and most do) is required to formulate a campus drug policy and distribute a copy to any student who asks for it. Most of the time, the written policies are fairly vague, so you’ll probably have to do a bit of additional investigation. Appendix II contains a list of questions about campus drug policies. Try to answer as many of them as possible before moving forward.

Once you determine what type of drug policy is in effect on your campus (good, bad, or just plain ugly), you’ll most likely find yourself working under one of three basic scenarios:

* You need to change a bad campus drug policy. For example: Students are being expelled from the dorms for first-time drug offenses.

* You need to prevent a proposed bad drug policy from being enacted. For example: The administration wants to give itself the power to punish students for off-campus acts.

* You have the opportunity to make a decent drug policy even better. For example: Students aren’t punished too harshly for drug offenses, but you’d like to make sure they have access to accurate and reality-based drug education and drug treatment on demand.

2) The next thing you’ll need to do is determine what, specifically, it is that you want to change. You’ll most likely have a laundry list of grievances, but it probably makes most sense to focus on one or a few particular policy changes. On the one hand, if you start by asking for a lot right away, you might be able to successfully negotiate down to a pretty good outcome. But on the other hand, if you start small and achieve a swift victory, you might gain enough momentum to keep going and make more changes. Ultimately, you’ll have to determine your approach based on what you and your colleagues think will be most effective on your campus.

3) Once you figure out what it is you’re asking for, you’ll need to find out how the drug policies are formulated and what the process is for making changes. You’ll need to find out who the decision-makers are that will ultimately need to be convinced. Do students play a role in the formulation of the policies? Among the decision-makers, who are already your allies, who opposes you, and who do you have a chance of convincing?

4) Before launching your campaign for campus change, you should also take some time to evaluate the resources initially available to you. Are you already working within the context of a strong student organization? Do you have allies on the student government? Are there friendly faculty or staff members who are in a position to help you? Do you have a good relationship with any potential monetary donors to your efforts? Do you or any of your colleagues have skills in graphic design, media relations, writing, or public speaking that you can make use of? What resources would be helpful that you don’t yet have access to? Answering such questions should help you determine the structure of your campaign.

II. Changing a bad campus drug policy or counteracting a proposed bad policy

The methods for changing existing bad policies and counteracting proposed bad polices are very similar. In the former case, there’s an established policy you’re working against, so it might be difficult to get decision-makers to agree to stop doing things in the way they’re familiar with. However, you’ll also have the advantage of being able to share the stories of real students who have been negatively affected by the existing policies. In the latter case, you’ll have a good chance of stopping the policy from being enacted since it isn’t set in stone yet. But you also won’t have the advantage of being able to put a face on the potential negative effects of the policy.

Making the original request for policy change:

If you determine your campus drug policies are intolerable, the next thing you should do is meet with the individuals responsible for formulating policies to air your grievances and make an honest effort to negotiate a desirable outcome. Making the original ask is important because 1) there’s a chance the decision-makers will agree to the demands and you’ll save yourself the trouble of having to organize a large and involved campaign, 2) you’ll gain credibility among the general public for making a good faith effort, and 3) when you sit down with decision-makers and they deny your request, you can show them some of your ambitious campaign plan and perhaps scare them into trying to negotiate a compromise with you right then and there.

If this effort turns out to be unfruitful, in which case you shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged, it’s time to start organizing a campaign.

Components of a successful campus change campaign:

There are several components of a successful campaign. There’s no specific order in which you’ll necessarily need to utilize any of these tasks, and you will likely use many of them simultaneously. But you should think strategically about which elements will work best and when. Depending on how many supporters you have, you’ll want to delegate specific responsibilities to certain people. For example, one person can be a media spokesperson while another can handle advertising, and yet another can be the person who negotiates directly with decision-makers. If you have enough people, you can even form committees that are responsible for each of the campaign components.

Building a coalition for change – Organizing a campaign is a lot of work, and you won’t be able to do it all by yourself. You’re going to need to determine who agrees with you enough to devote time and resources to helping out. (You’ll also need to find out who will actively oppose you and who will sit on the fence.)

One of the first things you should do is reach out to student organizations on campus that might be willing to help out with the campaign. These are students who are already active on campus; some of them probably have experience organizing similar campaigns. Attend their meetings and ask if you can take five minutes to discuss the problems associated with the policies and how interested individuals can help out with the campaign. Besides getting individual student members to work on the campaign, you should also try to get the organizations to officially endorse the policy changes you want to make, since it will boost your campaign’s authority and effectiveness to have a large, diverse list of supporters. It’s also helpful to reach out beyond campus to local and statewide organizations, such as ACLU chapters. These groups can bring credibility and resources to the campaign that you wouldn’t otherwise have. You can also ask your professors if they’ll let you make a quick announcement at the beginning or end of classes. Yet another way to identify your supporters is to hold a community forum for people to share their thoughts on the campus’s drug policies.

Other influential individuals you’ll want to reach out to include alumni, trustees, donors, state and local elected officials, and parents.

Additional resources:

Book – Roberts, Joan. Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships: Building Collaborative Organizations. New Society Publishers, 2004.

Website –

Expert – Dan Goldman –

Advertising – To win over the campus community, you’re going to have to let them know what the issues are and why they should agree with you. One of the early things you should do is flood the campus with some flashy, eye-catching flyers that clearly and concisely convey the importance of policy change. The flyers should include contact information so that people who want to get involved with the campaign can find out more about it. You might want to include your phone number and e-mail address, a website URL, or the time and date of a meeting that people can go to. You can hang these flyers up in academic buildings, dorms, the student union, and dining halls. Smaller, quarter-page flyers are also helpful, as they can be easily passed out at events, in classes, or on the campus green. See the resources section of this website for sample flyers.Additional resources:

Website –

Expert – Micah Daigle –

Using the Internet – While designing a website isn’t the simplest thing to do, it’s getting easier and easier all the time. In fact, there are probably other students on campus who are web design experts and are willing to help you out for free. Just ask around, especially among computer science students. On your website, you’ll want to have concise information about what the issues are and why change is necessary. On the front page, there should be a form that allows interested people sign up to receive e-mail announcements about the campaign. Having electronic copies of your flyers and handouts on the website will enable other students to print them and distribute them around campus independently of you. Make sure to have information for the members of the media such as press releases and news advisories. Of course, you’ll also want to make sure your contact information (such as phone number and e-mail) is included on the website so that reporters, students, and other interested individuals can get in touch with you.

Another easy and effective way to use the Internet to bolster your campaign is to set up a group on the popular college website, Facebook is a social networking site for college students. By setting up an account there and building a large membership list, you’ll be able to distribute campaign updates and action alerts to hundreds or thousands of people with the click of a button.

Additional resources:

Website –

Expert – Justin Holmes –

Building a list – Developing a list of supporters and their contact information is one of the most important things you can do to bolster your campaign’s effectiveness. When you have a comprehensive electronic list of your supporters, you’ll be able to easily mobilize them when it’s time to act. A good way to build your list is to get people to sign petitions that ask them to put down their e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and screen names. You can also incorporate a sign up form on your campaign’s website, if you have one. When it comes time to mobilize people, you’ll be able to send out a blast e-mail that concisely outlines what you need them to do and when you need them to do it. If you’re organizing a large rally or protest, you can also put together a “flash mob.” This involves sending out a mass text message to all your supporters’ cell phones right before you want them to gather. If you have hundreds or thousands of folks on your list, even a very small response rate can result in lots of people showing up. Another way to use this tactic is to send instant messages to the supporters you have screen names for. See the resources section of this website for sample petitions.

Additional resources:

Website –

Working with the media – Generating press coverage is one of the easiest and most effective ways to put pressure on decision-makers. Placing articles in on-campus publications is helpful because the people you need to reach will most likely read them. But make sure to reach out to off-campus media as well. University administrators will be much more likely to be responsive to your campaign if influential individuals like trustees, state legislators, and alumni hear about what’s going on through the major media. You can also use the opinion pages of newspapers to raise awareness about what you’re doing. Writing letters to the editor is an especially easy and effective way to score coverage for your campaign. You should also reach out to newspaper columnists and editorial boards, especially those at your campus paper, and urge them to write about the need to change your school’s drug policy. See the resources section of this website for a sample letter to the editor.

Additional resources:

Book – Salzman, Jason. Making the News. Westview Press, 2003.

Website –

Expert – Tom Angell –

Lobbying for change – A major goal of your campaign is to make students’ voices heard by those that need to hear them. While many students will agree with your position, most of them will probably feel too busy to contribute lots of time and energy to the campaign. Thus, you’ll need to make it as easy as possible for them to speak out and send messages to the decision-makers responsible for setting the campus drug policies. This tactic is called grassroots lobbying, and it is extremely effective in amplifying your concerns.

One way to do this is to organize a phone slam, which is intended to flood decision-makers offices’ with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of phone calls. You can make this happen by printing thousands of quarter-page flyers that have phone numbers and sample scripts on them. You can distribute these by setting up tables in a high-traffic area of campus, such as the student union or the green. Another, more expensive but more visible, way to send the message that you have lots of students on your side is to print lots of postcards, get them signed, and deliver them to decision-makers’ offices. On one side of the cards, print a simple message about why policies need to be changed, and on the other put some sort of eye-catching graphic. You can either have students mail the postcards themselves, or you can collect all the postcards and periodically deliver stacks to the offices yourself. The second method is preferable for a number of reasons. By collecting the cards, you know that they’ll actually get delivered, whereas individual students might otherwise forget to drop them in the mailbox. You’ll also be able to collect students’ names and contact information from the cards you collect, which will help you build a list of supporters you can mobilize later. This method also saves money on postage, since you’ll be personally hand-delivering the cards to offices. Yet another way to make sure decision-makers are getting the message that students demand change is to flood their e-mail inboxes. You can either distribute administrators’ e-mail addresses and ask students to draft their own messages and send individual e-mails, or you can set up an online action alert center where students simply enter in their contact information and e-mail messages are automatically generated. Get in touch with the SSDP national office for more information about the second option. See the resources section of this website for a sample phone script.

However you decide to contact decision-makers, you’re going to need to be smart in deciding who you contact and how you do it. The drug policies on your campus are most likely set and changed by a committee of people. Does it make most sense to spread the messages out between all of them? Do you want to focus on just a few of your opponents or fence sitters? Could overwhelming a particular decision-maker with messages from students be annoying to the point that it will make him or her less likely to support your efforts?

Additional resources:

Website –

Expert – Erik Cooke –

Personal stories – Getting people who have been directly affected by your school’s drug policies to come forward and share their stories is a great way to clearly demonstrate the need for change. Once other students, faculty, and decision-makers see that the policies are having disastrous effects on real people, they’ll be much more likely to support your campaign. Putting a face on the issue is also helpful for generating media coverage. However, it’s absolutely critical that you make sure you have the right poster-children who send the right messages about why the policies need to be changed. Shining the spotlight on someone who has a less-than-sympathetic story can severely impede your ability to convince people to get involved with the campaign.

Additional resources:

Expert – Marisa Garcia –

Working with student and faculty governments – One easy and effective way to demonstrate the student body’s opposition to bad campus drug policies is to have your student government pass a resolution calling for reform. This will not only send a message to decision-makers, but it is likely to generate media interest as well. If you can’t seem to get the student government on your side right away, a long-term strategy is to take over the body by running a slate of candidates on a students’ rights platform. If you can get the faculty government to pass a resolution calling for policy change, it is sure to get decision-makers’ attention. See the resources section of this website for a sample resolution.

Additional resources:

Website – American Student Government Association –

Expert – Justin Holmes –

Taking direct action – If all bureaucratic avenues for airing your concerns have been exhausted and you still haven’t been able to foster policy change, it might be time to take direct action. Direct action will certainly get the attention of decision-makers and is sure to get the media interested. Direct action can take many forms, including rallies, protests, and even nonviolent civil disobedience. Holding a large rally with hundreds of students, signs, and chanting is a particularly good way to get the media’s attention. Such a large rally is an effective way to flex your coalition’s power and influence. Remember, the goal of direct action is to bring you back to the negotiation stage so you can broker a deal for change.

Additional resources:

Website –

Expert – Hilary McQuie –

Brokering a deal for change – Hopefully your campaign will be successful and you’ll be able to get the decision-makers to agree to meet you at the negotiating table. Obviously, you’ll want all of your demands to be fully met, but it’s more likely that you’ll need to compromise and meet the decision-makers somewhere in the middle. You’re going to have to be careful to not let them take advantage of you and trick you into agreeing to something you don’t really want. You’ll also have to make sure you’re accurately portraying and defending the concerns of the coalition you are representing. Make sure not to sign off on a deal that will alienate any part of your coalition. In any case, you’ll want to start by asking for exactly what you want. Then, if necessary, you can work your way down to a mutually acceptable compromise.

Additional resources:

Website –

Expert – Scarlett Swerdlow –

Taking over the judicial system – One long-term way to reduce the harm associated with your campus’s policies while they remain on the books is to stack the student disciplinary boards with sympathetic individuals. This way, you can make sure that defendants are being treated fairly. If you want to be extra-radical, you can ask your supportive judicial board members to refuse convicting anyone of campus drug policy violations because of the unnecessarily harsh punishments that are usually doled out.

Additional resources:

Website –

Each of the many above tactics is effective in its own way. But most likely, you won’t find it necessary to use all of them over the course of your campaign. Instead, you should take time to consider which particular combination of tactics will be most effective on your campus in light of the unique policy situation you’re facing and the resources you have available to you. Please make use of the external resources we’ve provided references to here, and don’t hesitate to call the SSDP National Office with any questions you have over the course of planning or carrying out your campaign.

III. Making a decent drug policy even better

If your campus’s drug policy is already fairly decent, you have a real chance to campaign for bold and cutting-edge policies. You’ll have the opportunity to use your campus as a laboratory for formulating truly sensible drug policies. As young people, we’re going to be experiencing the harms of the Drug War for years to come. So it’s up to us to determine how to more effectively deal with the problems associated with drug abuse and addiction in the future. While most campuses will have some harmful and counterproductive drug policies that need to be changed, students should take the opportunity to construct a positive vision for effective drug policy whenever possible. If your campus is already handling drug issues in a relatively practical and fair manner, you should think about trying go influence decision-makers to enact some above-and-beyond measures.

The campaign tactics for enacting cutting-edge sensible drug polices are similar to those for counteracting bad policies. But since you’ll be treading in largely uncharted waters, the methods for moving forward with proactive campaigns are even less easily translated into a step-by-step guide than are those for reactive campaigns intended to oppose bad policies.

Here are a few examples of sensible campus drug policy measures you might want to try implementing at your school:

Start a drug resource center – One reason that so many young people get into trouble with drug abuse and addiction is that they don’t have accurate information about the effects of drugs. For too long, misinformation and scare tactics have been fed to young people through misguided programs like DARE. Now, it’s time to take matters into our own hands to make sure that our peers have access to accurate, science-based information about drugs. Students can only be expected to make safe and sensible decisions when they have adequate information and resources available to them, but this is too often not the case. Too many students have not researched, and thus do not adequately understand, the risks associated with the drugs they’ve taken or are planning to take.

You can start a drug resource center (DRC) on campus, aimed at taking initiative and making sure our peers have the best information available. Ideally, the DRC will be student-led, in partnership with the university. Operating under a harm reduction philosophy, the DRC should work to minimize the negative impacts of both licit and illicit drug use on individuals and the entire community. The goal should be to provide knowledge about drugs, not to promote drug use. You should have your volunteers attend trainings on harm reduction, drug effects, and communications techniques. The DRC should house a library of reference materials. Depending on the nature of the questions asked, visitors should be directed to books, scholarly journal articles, government reports, web sites, or cards or pamphlets of information to take home. Students who come to the DRC because they feel they have problems with drugs can be given a list of treatment providers or counselors in the area, both on-campus and off-campus. One SSDP chapter started a drug resource center with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, while another founded one in cooperation with their university’s Department of Health Education.

Expand treatment and counseling – Perhaps your school isn’t so harsh about cracking down on students for drugs on campus. But are they actually dealing with drug issues in a sensible way, or are they just turning a blind eye to potential problems? You might want to work to expand quality treatment and counseling services for all students who request them. This campaign will probably mean that you are asking your school to invest significant monetary resources into implementing your idea, which is always a hard sell to make in a cash-strapped time like this.

Make scholarships available for HEA Drug Provision victims – More than 175,000 students around the country have already been stripped of their financial aid simply because they have drug convictions. SSDP has been working hard to repeal the Higher Education Act (HEA) Drug Provision for the past seven years, and despite our successfully scaling back the law this year, we still have a lot of work to do before we can fully repeal it. In the meantime, you can help keep affected students in school while the law remains on the books. So far, four schools – Yale University, Hampshire College, Swarthmore College, and Western Washington University – have established scholarship funds that use the school’s money to replace students’ financial aid lost to the HEA Drug Provision.

Establish a safe ride program – Each year, more than 2.1 million students drive while under the influence of alcohol. To address this alarming reality, you might want to influence your college to offer a safe ride program that transports inebriated students who would otherwise drive while intoxicated. This is another above-and-beyond measure that could end up costing a lot of money. To make the program work, you’ll need one or a few dedicated vehicles and committed sober drivers on call. While this may seem like an ambitious idea, more and more schools around the country are beginning to enact safe ride programs.

IV. General Campaign Organizing Resources


Bobo, Kim; Kendall, Jackie & Max, Steve. Organizing for Social Change (3rd Edition). Seven Locks Press, 2001.


Campus Action –

Greenpeace –

Americans for Safe Access –

APPENDIX I: Limitations and opportunities from federal, state, and local laws

As you’re campaigning to change your campus’s drug policies, you should be aware of various federal, state, and local laws governing how colleges deal with drug use. This way, you’ll be able to make sure you’re not asking the school to do anything that it is legally unable to do.

For example, the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Regulations or DFSCR (34 CFR Part 86), published by the U.S. Department of Education in 1990 pursuant to the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989, mandates that all colleges receiving federal funding enact “standards of conduct that clearly prohibit the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol on school property or as part of any school activities.” This means that you cannot get your school to “legalize” drugs on campus. You can only hope to make sure they deal with illegal drug use in the most sensible manner possible.

However, this federal law can also work to our advantage. The DFSCR comes in handy when researching what your school’s drug policy entails. The law requires that schools must provide “a clear statement that the institution will impose sanctions on students and employees (consistent with local, state, and federal law), and a description of those sanctions, up to and including expulsion or termination of employment and referral for prosecution, for violations of the standards of conduct.” Reading the school’s statement is a good starting place when determining what your campus’s drug policy looks like and how it needs to be changed.

DFSCR also mandates that schools provide a description of counseling and treatment programs available to students. This is a good way to find out if students’ needs are adequately being met.

Additionally, the law requires that schools provide a “description of the health risks associated with the use of illicit drugs and the abuse of alcohol.” If the information they provide seems to be incorrect or misleading, you might think about filing a potential precedent-setting lawsuit to force the school to provide accurate and science-based information.

The law further requires colleges to conduct biennial reviews of their programs to determine effectiveness and implement changes if needed, and to ensure that the sanctions developed are enforced consistently. If you can obtain documents pertaining to the biennial review, you might get a good idea of what, in particular, needs to be changed on your campus.

Another federal law that you can use to your advantage is the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act requires colleges to keep track of and disclose statistics about crimes committed on and around campuses, including drug crimes. Visit to find out how to get crime statistics for your campus.

It’s important to remember that in addition to these federal requirements, there may also be state or local laws your school must comply with.

APPENDIX II: Questions about your campus drug policy

  • What is the punishment for first-time marijuana violations? Second-time? Etc? How do punishments differ for violations involving other drugs? To what extent are the penalties for violations involving marijuana or other illegal drugs different from violations involving alcohol?
  • Under which circumstances are students punished for off-campus infractions?
  • What powers do RA’s, campus security, administrators, and other school representatives have to search students’ on-campus housing units? Is a warrant necessary? Is probable cause sufficient for a search? Can dorms be searched based on anonymous tips or mere whims?
  • Under which circumstances are students removed from on-campus housing for drug policy violations?
  • Under which circumstances are students suspended or expelled for violating campus drug policies?
  • Under which circumstances are local, state, or federal law enforcement involved when students are caught violating drug policies? To what extent are these matters handled internally by the school, so as not to subject students to legal repercussions like state or federal convictions and the loss of financial aid?
  • When are parents notified of students’ drug policy violations?
  • Under which circumstances, if any, are students drug tested?
  • How are students, parents, faculty, and staff informed of what the school’s drug policy is?
  • What is the judicial process for determining guilt and handing down punishment? Do other students serve as a “jury of peers” in determining guilt? What is the standard of proof for determining guilt? Can students have legal representation present at drug policy violation hearings? Are hearings open to the public if the defendant requests it, or are all proceedings behind closed doors?
  • What is the process for appealing campus drug policy violation convictions? Are appeals decisions made by truly independent entities, or are they made by close affiliates of the bodies making original determinations of guilt?
  • Are drug treatment and counseling made available to students seeking these services? Are treatment or counseling ever mandated as part of punishment for drug policy violations?
  • What kinds of drug education are made available to students? Where does the drug information come from? Is harm-reduction education made available or are the education programs abstinence-only?
  • If students call campus medical services because they or their friends seem to be overdosing, does the school notify the police, or do they simply make sure that students get the medical attention they need?