Author: Hannah Taylor

The full article is posted on Drug Reporter, so please go read the rest of it there, with insights from SSDP Internationals Executive Director Róisín and SSDP UK leader Dasha. Part Two of the article can be found here, with further discussion from our Executive Director Ailish and prominent youth drug policy activists. The following is the section of the article that our Executive Director Ailish, and one of our International Working Group Members from Ghana featured in.


It’s common for governments to use ‘protecting the youth’ as a justification for punitive drug policies. The policies governments are propagating, however, are not evidence-based and show little knowledge of how young people use drugs.

“So we’re used as this prop for them to be able to justify these drug policies because it’s fearmongering. They’re being like, ‘Young people will die unless we do this.’ …but they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t have any evidence to back that up,” shared Róisín Downes, SSDP’s Global Program Coordinator.

Young people, however, do know what they’re talking about. Their voices and their experiences should be treated as valid within civil society and decision-making spheres. Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Youth RISE are two international organizations focused on engaging young people in harm reduction and drug policy reform. This mini-series focuses on 6 young activists who are working around the world to fight for drug policy reform and to protect human rights.

Youth RISE

Youth RISE is a decentralized organization which is made up mostly of people who are already involved in harm reduction work or organizations in their own country. That decentralization allows locally-informed and responsive actions, while feeding lessons from those efforts back into a global community. Additionally, Youth RISE members are in and of their communities, which is key for having a greater impact.

Some of Youth RISE’s members and colleagues from partner organizations at a digital communications workshop hosted by Youth RISE in Vilnius, Lithuania

“Having that sort of insider knowledge and having such a deep level of trust of the community members and having such an understanding of what is necessary in each region…Like I’m never going to [fully] understand as the [Executive Director] of this organization, what is necessary in Peru or what is necessary in South Africa or what is necessary in Nepal,” said Ailish Brennan, Youth RISE’s Executive Director.

Youth RISE members and member organizations benefit not only from the wide-reaching network, but also from concrete activities, like workshops on capacity building and network development. Several new organizations stemming from Youth RISE have been established and now function on the local level. Youth RISE Nigeria, for example, has been an independent organization for over 5 years.

While Youth RISE is a decentralized organization, it benefits from strong communications structures, and activities that are organized to benefit the membership.

“Having best practices from these spaces are relevant to accelerate and to advance the advocacy that’s happening at the national level…It’s a constant learning space for me, challenging myself, embracing new perspectives and insights and also bringing to the country level, lessons,” shared Daniel Nii Ankrah, one of Youth RISE’s International Working Group Members from Ghana.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Youth RISE is its focus on Full Spectrum Harm Reduction, which it defines as incorporating all of the people who use drugs, all of the methods for using drugs, as well as the political, social, and environmental contexts for use.

“Black Lives Matter [is] a very good example to begin with. How a person’s skin color interacts with the world in general, but also with their drug use, and with their access to harm reduction services,” Ailish explained.

This becomes clear to Ailish in Berlin, where she lives, every time she enters a public park. The most visible, and therefore vulnerable, people selling drugs are people of color, primarily male refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. These people are excluded from safer ways of selling drugs, and more likely to be targeted by the police based on their skin color. With poor social welfare systems in place, they may not have a car or a flat from where they could more securely sell.

Other important considerations for full-spectrum harm reduction are if the services offered are gender spectrum-inclusive, as most are built with a male client in mind, and that the service can adapt to changes in the drug market and drug use patterns. 

The truly global nature of the organization allows for collaboration across levels. Sometimes collaborations happen at the national, or regional levels, like West Africa or Asia or Europe. They make a plan for the year, and tend to keep that structure, but also tend to have some spontaneity to respond to pressing issues, as was the case with COVID-19.

When a Youth RISE member has an idea or proposal, there is a wealth of available experience to draw on to help refine it.

“I am able to consult…sex workers, consult drug user communities, consult other people who come from different backgrounds, and then maybe harmonize their perspectives and concerns and insights into concrete advocacy material that, together with a few of them, I can present on their behalf.” Daniel feels that Youth RISE has helped him to develop as an advocate in the broadest sense.

Ailish and Daniel chatting at CND 2020

“I think that for a long time I have been more invested in national and regional-level advocacy work, but I think that Youth RISE is one of the platforms that made me see the essence in linking advocacy across levels, particularly to the global level,” he shared.

Read the rest of the article on Drug Reporter here and part two of the article here!