Written by AJ Martin – President of the Imperial College Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Engaging in the drug science and policy space has given me a sense of purpose. It has allowed me to use my scientific expertise for a greater good; not driven by profit or prestige, but for the health and wellbeing of young people. I have unfortunately seen addiction affect people close to me, so being active in changing the UK paradigm on drugs is incredibly important. The increase in drug-related deaths observed since the blanket ban introduced by the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016 signifies that current UK drug policy is not fit for purpose. Therefore, I feel implored to take matters into my own hands.
My initiation into London’s nightlife during my time as an undergraduate student inevitably included exposure to drugs, commonly demonised in the media. Compared to the extreme drug stories told in PSHE lessons, my experience was much less eventful and didn’t feel worthy of criminal status. Growing up in the coastal city of Brighton, I was well aware of peers smoking cannabis and taking MDMA from as young as 12. Several of my classmates were disciplined and, in a few cases, expelled from school for drug possession. However, this did nothing to stop drug use in our school. During my degree at Imperial College London, I acquired technical medicinal chemistry knowledge and delved into the scientific literature to understand how these drugs work in the brain. It was then that I came across the concept of harm reduction: seeking to reduce the harms associated with MDMA to my peer-group, I shared strategies such as drug checking, volumetric dosing, and the ‘three-month rule’. I saw the benefit of evidence-based, implementable measures that both reduced drug-associated risks and the anxiety of uninformed drug use, and felt energised to share this with a wider audience. Alongside my coursemates, I aided in forming Imperial’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter in 2021 as the Head of Neuropsychopharmacology before becoming Chair in 2022. We share evidence-based, harm reduction-focused drug information on our social media, and host socials and academic talks with experts in the drug policy and science field.
Drug Science has been a pivotal source of information both in my personal and professional life. Their drug spotlights on Instagram were my first point of call when educating myself on drug effects and risk. Additionally, Prof. David Nutt’s book ‘Drugs without the Hot Air’ provided an accessible overview of the most common psychoactive drugs – arguably a better drug education than I received in secondary school. Attending Drug Science events sparked insightful conversations with like-minded people who share a passion for sensible, science-backed drug strategy with the aim of improving the lives of people who use drugs. In March, my voluntary work with the Benzo Research Project was platformed at Drug Science’s largest Street Drugs Discussions: A Deep Dive on Benzodiazepines, where I presented our findings alongside my co-lead Joanna Bright. It felt incredibly validating to see our vision shared and our work valued amongst experts in psychopharmacologists and policy experts.
As Chair of SSDP Imperial, I joined the newly formed Drug Science Student Society Network (SSN) in 2022. Our mission for spreading evidence-based drug information has been actively supported by the SSN, garnering a nationwide audience for our harm reduction content and guest speaker events both in-person and online. The SSN has allowed us to connect with societies across the UK, providing the opportunity to attend events such as Drug Policy, Media, and Law at Bart’s London. Mags and the SSN team have done an excellent job creating a community of harm reduction activists, budding drug scientists, and future policymakers that SSDP Imperial is proud to be a part of.