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The emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) – often called “synthetic drugs,” “legal highs,” or “research chemicals” – pose a number of challenges for policymakers, media covering these issues, medical and social service providers, and people who use these substances.
Unfortunately, current media and policy responses to NPS – a broad category that includes everything from synthetic cannabinoids such as “K2”, to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, to traditional plants such as kratom – have been largely fueled by misinformation rather than facts. For example, in New York City, concerns about synthetic cannabinoids led to misleading media coverage and targeted policing in communities of color and among the homeless, missing a critical opportunity to lead with harm reduction and public health strategies instead of criminalization.
These substances often come on the market as legal alternatives to illicit drugs. In the U.S., they are routinely banned, leading chemists to come up with slightly new formulations to evade existing laws. This cat-and-mouse game has led to a proliferation of these substances, whose potential harms (and benefits) are largely unknown.
Seth Fitzgerald from The Drug Classroom attended an important conversation about novel psychoactive substances on the evening of June 9th – 10th in New York City hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. At New Strategies for New Psychoactive Substances: A Public Health Approach, the discussion included what is currently known about these substances, strategies for intervening when use becomes harmful, exploring new forms of drug regulation, and examining how messaging and media about NPS can become more constructive. The gathering laid the foundation for a series of recommendations for policymakers, medical and social service providers, researchers, and media.
Sheila Vakharia earned her doctorate at Florida International University’s School of Social Work. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Binghamton University and a Post-Master’s Certificate in the Addictions from New York University. She was most recently employed as a social worker at a grassroots HIV/AIDS and homelessness advocacy organization in Manhattan, where she provided harm reduction-based substance use counseling, facilitated harm reduction support groups, and conducted quality assurance activities. She was also a SIFI certified field instructor for B.S.W. students from New York University at that time. Prior to that, she worked at an OASAS-licensed rural outpatient substance use treatment facility where she conducted diagnostic assessments, made level-of-care treatment determinations, and facilitated aftercare groups for individuals with co-occurring disorders.
Jeannie Little has been at the forefront of developing harm reduction therapy for people with co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders since 1990. Beginning with her work at the Department of Veterans Affairs, she developed the harm reduction therapy group model and has trained therapists nationally and abroad. She teaches and consults with staff in outpatient clinics, drop-in centers, and supportive housing programs. She directs a national group of researchers and harm reduction therapists that is working to bring harm reduction therapy into the mainstream of substance abuse treatment. She has authored many papers and, with Dr. Denning, she co-authored Practicing Harm Reduction Psychotherapy and Over the Influence, a self-help book for consumers.
Frances first got involved with SSDP in 2011, when she co-founded the Northwestern University chapter as a freshman. Although she had known that the War on Drugs was irrational and ineffective before attending college, it wasn’t until she attended her first Midwest Regional Conference at Roosevelt University that she learned that drug policies were also unjust and inhumane. Since then, harm reduction has been a guiding principle behind all of her professional and personal pursuits, and she strives to educate people about the intersectionalities associated with the War on Drugs.In the drug policy world, Frances has served on SSDP’s Board of Directors, and has worked with cannabis law and industry organizations to research cannabis policy in various states, and write and review applications for cannabis cultivation centers and dispensary licenses. On campus, she was involved with Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE), Alpha Chi Omega sorority and and has served as the President of the Panhellenic Association.
Goals for SSDP Peer Education Program
SSDP Peer Educators achieve this goal through three primary activities