Introducing the University of Houston SSDP chapter

Welcome to the network, University of Houston SSDP!

Chapter leaders Chelsea Pederson ‘19 and Pierce Popson ‘19 recently reached out to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, separately, and have since been working together to get the University of Houston chapter established. I sat down with them to ask about their interest and experience this far. 

How did you hear about SSDP? 

Chelsea: For the past few years, I was on the search for local groups and organizations to embed myself in and realized how few there are in Houston. After months of scouring the internet, I noticed that SSDP aligned perfectly with what I had imagined for not only the University of Houston but for the city of Houston.

Pierce: I’ve always had an inclination towards the world of drugs and medicines alike. As I saw more harm than good being caused by the War on Drugs I voiced my opinions to friends. One friend in particular at the UT Austin SSDP chapter told me about this group he found on his campus that shared similar ideologies. Since then I knew SSDP was a place I’d like to be. 

Why did you want to get involved/what made you decide to start a chapter? 

Chelsea: Throughout undergrad, I felt that I wasn’t able to truly express my position on substance use, criminal justice or drug policy reform; so, I was determined to open a chapter at UH, regardless of the logistics.

Pierce: As I began to research illegal substances more in depth, it became clear to me that something was not right. The punishment for the use or possession of these narcotics did not fit the “crime.” I realized that most of the malice we have grown accustomed to pairing with drug use is not, in fact, due to the drugs themselves, but rather is a by-product of the drug war and the suffering it has inflicted on drug users. I wanted to open this chapter to change the minds of my peers.

Chelsea: I come from a social work background, and a few years ago, the realization hit me that every reform effort must be tackled through an interdisciplinary team; otherwise, we will fail as a whole. Houston is a city with over four million people and ensuring we create a safe space to discuss criminal justice and drug policy reform in a manner that doesn’t stigmatize any of our diverse populations is crucial to our chapter.

Pierce & Chelsea: We feel if we take the initiative, through SSDP, to start the conversation with students and the community, those who are hesitant will take notice. It’s been refreshing that we have one another to voice and bring action to these ideas, and we want that for our school and community as well.

What has the reception been like on campus? 

Pierce: Initially, I was hard pressed to find those with similar mindsets as mine. Many people inside the natural science department did not feel as if this is an issue that calls for their attention. But the more I explain and give reason to our efforts, the more I see compassion in the eyes of those around me.

Chelsea: The social work department has shown a lot of love instantaneously because we’re a family that supports one another’s passions, regardless of personal input.

Chelsea & Pierce: Even if we have strong-compassionate points of view, we’re creating this chapter to promote education and honest discussions around what most avoid. When we are met with hesitancy, from students and faculty, we strongly believe the walls will fall once they attend an event, visit during a meeting or witness us during tabling events.

We started this chapter one month ago, but we’re working on the steps necessary so we can introduce ourselves at “Cat’s Back,” this August (huge publicized recruitment day for student organizations on campus).

What are some of the things you have planned or want to plan for next semester?

Chelsea: Given that Houston is so large, Pierce and I decided to focus on different aspects of the drug war to reach as many Houston residents as possible.

Harris County has four main diversions-programs that have made notable impacts, but they have the ability to reduce mass incarceration, in Houston, if they’re adjusted appropriately. The overall goal for this upcoming semester is to work alongside the District Attorney’s office to modify the Responsive Interventions for Change (RIC) Program to become precharge, rather than pretrial. This adjustment reduces law enforcement to a supportive position so that mental health and substance dependence remains in the hands of healthcare and social service professionals. In the future, we hope to adopt Restorative Justice and Harm Reduction approaches for RIC.

In regards to the University of Houston, we aim to address Section 4 of the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Policy by referring students to counseling and mental health resources rather than prosecution. In the future we hope to offer SSDP as a drug assistance program, granted by the university’s Department of Human Resources.

Pierce: There are many things I’d like to tackle in Houston, but I believe the most pressing is overdose risks. By raising awareness on campus about things like naloxone, testing kits, and other harm reduction resources I hope to make an impact on the risk people have to undergo when making a decision for themselves. I would like to create policies inside of my administration that would educate faculty on the importance of things like Narcan/Naloxone and allow campus policy to carry these medications on them. Work like this can be accomplished through outreach to third party organizations like In Another Vein, Houston Harm Reduction Alliance, and TONI. Many users feel as if they don’t have the right to treatment anymore and are afraid to receive help; I would like to address these barriers to treatment and bring these resources to them. I’m currently speaking to small clinics around the Houston area to allow us to educate patients about the possible routes of care that they have available to them if they are users. Ultimately, the plan for this semester is to make a difference.

Pierce & Chelsea: In terms of events, we plan to address stigma and educate our peers as well as our community through educational campaigns and activities. I’m sure we’ve all heard about, read or watched “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. SSDP at UHouston plans to work alongside the Center for the Healing of Racism’s “Shattering of Stereotypes (SOS)” to bring students and community members alike to mingle with one another and afterward display-discuss commonly associated stigmas.

With that said, we recognize the need for activities and campaigns that address trauma after losing family members to active substance use, overdose, suicide, and even to drug-related incarceration or violence.

What is the most challenging part of your experience starting/running the chapter so far?

Chelsea: Self-doubt and imposter syndrome is real at any point of chasing your dreams.

Pierce: This is my first time being involved in something as big as creating the first of an organization on campus. I think it’s normal to worry about how successful your pursuits really will be. It’s hard to deal when it’s not just you, but those around you telling you that this will never work and that what you are working towards is the wrong thing. Having the courage to stand up and fight for the ideologies of SSDP and our own is something that isn’t always natural for me but it’s what we intend to do.

Chelsea: Our initial fear is keeping students engaged and motivated to defeat the War on Drugs. It’s so easy to “like/share” on social media, but the day of support is essential to our growth and success. The quote, “Houston is an hour away from Houston” is true on so many levels, aside from transportation, but making sure meetings and events are accessible for anyone who has an interest is another anxiety-ridden thought.

What is the most rewarding part?

Pierce & Chelsea: We feel that merely witnessing the sigh of relief when like-minded individuals can openly discuss sensitive topics without fear is rewarding on its own. Also, shining a light on topics that go unaddressed, getting answers or insight, and having honest, open discussion with legislators and local leaders. It is rewarding to open minds that were once ignorant to the realities of a situation and creating unity.

What are you most excited about for your chapter/school/state/region/ssdp/drug policy right now?

Pierce & Chelsea: We cannot wait for the semester to begin so we can show up and show out, officially. We’ve been putting in work prior to meeting in person, and we’re thrilled to create a safe space alongside one another. We intend to be the steady voice for students and the greater Houston area in terms of dismantling stigmatizing and unjust drug policies.

What is your vision for University of Houston SSDP? Where do you see your chapter in a year? in 4 or 5 years?

Chelsea: Within our Constitution, we stated that remaining an interdisciplinary team with two leaders is important because for a chapter as diverse as the city we serve leaders from varying disciplines is necessary. We hope that our efforts in establishing this chapter will have longevity in our student body and that we become a tool for the Houston community to depend on.

Pierce: To make change we have to establish a group who understands and believes in SSDP’s mission. A group who acknowledges the importance of voting in legislation that will accomplish a similar vision. A group who holds passion to share knowledge and teach the next generation these same ideas of compassion. Through this group the status quo is challenged and local leaders and legislators will be pressured to acknowledge and active participation in dismantling the Drug War.