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Students for Sensible Drug Policy Launches Statewide Fellowship

Youth-led program aims to curb rise in overdoses among youth, communities of color

A man raises his arms during a protest against drug policy, holding a sign with one hand and making a fist with the other
Jake Plowden with Students for Sensible Drug Policy advocates for change at a past event. (Photo courtesy of SSDP)

In a startling February report that raised the red flag about a 72% increase in statewide overdose deaths between 2019-’21, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services highlighted how a deeper look at that number only makes it more troubling; fatal overdose incidents have disproportionately affected communities of color, rising 139% in Black communities and 117% in Indigenous communities over that two-year period. 

Teen overdose deaths in the United States have also risen, nearly doubling from 2010 to 2020 then increasing another 20% in 2021.  

In an effort to combat this rise in overdose deaths among young people and communities of color, youth-led grassroots network Students for Sensible Drug Policy has launched the Youth Overdose Prevention Fellowship, selected six students and young adults across North Carolina to participate in and provide harm reduction education and advocate for accessible, evidence-based drug policies. 

The six-month program launched in May. Funded by the Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program (OPP), organizers prioritized Black, Indigenous, and Latinx young adults interested in drug policy reform, especially those directly impacted by the war on drugs. 

“Young people are losing friends and loved ones to the overdose crisis at historic rates, particularly in Indigenous and Black communities in North Carolina,” said Kat Humphries, technical advisor with OPP. 

“When you take a look at the data you see a stark overdose rise in Black, Indigenous and Latinx populations in North Carolina,” Humphries continued. “We really wanted … to make sure that the people who are comprising those populations are leading the solutions.”

Announced in the May 17 release, the team of fellows includes Courtney Benson, a nursing student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte; Kaya Littleturtle Clark, a member of the Lumbee Tribe from Hoke County; Tyaire Adams, a residential hall assistant at NC Central University in Durham; Austin Smith, a recreation aide with the city of Raleigh; Kimberly Mebane, a graduate student at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro; and Josahandy Avila, a student at Saint Augustine’s University in Garner.  

The six fellows will train in harm reduction and community organizing, participate in workshops and attend bi-weekly sessions in the lead-up to an independently organized local event for International Overdose Awareness Day in August. 

The fellows will also attend a legislative education day in Raleigh to educate North Carolina elected officials about youth overdose prevention.

Humphries said the initiative is intended as a bidirectional conversation between fellows and SSDP and Vital Strategies to teach the organizations about what conversations around harm reduction and community care are working.

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Benson, the only fellow based in Charlotte, told Queen City Nerve that she hopes to become better informed in this field specifically so as to help her community more effectively. Her goal is to become educated by people and families directly affected by drug use and overdose to then share those experiences with others.

“I can’t bring a solution without being informed,” she said. “But if we keep spreading the word and informing people, everybody gets a little piece of knowledge of what is happening and what could be done.”

A headshot featuring Courtney Benson of the new Students for Sensible Drug Policy fellowship.
Courtney Benson (Photo courtesy of SSDP)

Students for Sensible Drug Policy was launched by a few students in 1998 and now has a presence on more than 300 campuses in 32 countries.

While the new initiative is piloting in North Carolina, Ortiz and Humphries are hopeful that the fellowship can eventually spread to different states.

“Anytime we empower young people to have real conversations with their communities, we’re all going to benefit from that,” Ortiz said. “We’re just here to provide the training and infrastructure to let them do it.”

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