Responding to limited drug education, UMN student group fills gap

SPEDE was started last semester after a noticed lack of drug education and prevention.

Olivia Johnson

Though safe alcohol use and education is integrated and enforced at the University of Minnesota, some students see a gap in drug education.

Students Promoting Effective Drug Education, or SPEDE, is a student group devoted to disseminating drug information to students so they can make informed decisions and prevent harm.

Neuroscience junior Conor Burke-Smith, who started the group last year, said he felt there was a lack of education about recreational drugs commonly used by students. Burke-Smith said he enjoys the electronic dance music scene and sees a lot of substance abuse in that setting.

“The administration does a pretty good job with alcohol in terms of giving students … harm reduction information,” he said. “It’s a reality that lots of students use a lot of other substances.”

Burke-Smith said he thinks the University administration has a limited reach in regards to drug education and prevention, especially if a student has already abused illegal drugs.

He said school staff members can be less likely to talk openly about drugs and that students would be more willing to talk with peers about drug use rather than an authority figure.

Although Boynton Health provides drug counselors, many students refer to them after a problem has already developed, he said. Burke-Smith said he believes drug abuse is easily preventable.

“If [students] want to try a drug, they’ll be more likely to look at information and say, ‘Oh, this seems pretty safe to me,’” he said. “We’re … unbiased. We can give [information] in a more fact-based, straight-up way.”

Dave Golden, Boynton Health director of public health and communications, said the clinic focuses on alcohol education because it’s a bigger problem on campus.

“Information going out to people … that’s great,” Golden said of SPEDE’s goal. “Student-to-student is a great way to go.”

Boynton has three counselors who specialize in helping patients who struggle with drug abuse, Golden said, though students don’t meet with them frequently.

Students who regularly use drugs often end up leaving the University, Golden said.

Almost 40 percent of full-time college students had used an illicit drug at least once in 2012, according to a study cited in a 2015 Boynton Health report.

To form SPEDE, Burke-Smith said he reached out to students through the School of Public Health and friends he knew who were passionate about drug education.

“Most of the gaps here can be filled in with a student group,” he said. “Hopefully students are going to understand our intention is only to help them.”

In the next month, the group will have a weekly table at Coffman Union where students can take pamphlets or have a conversation with members.

Eventually, Burke-Smith said, SPEDE wants to give presentations to campus organizations like fraternities.

Sarah Sevcik, a public health teaching specialist, teaches a course on drug and alcohol abuse.

She said she received an email about SPEDE last semester and was interested in their harm reduction focus and reached out to Burke-Smith to learn more.

“I’m excited that people are wanting to do this,” she said. “I definitely think that peer education is a really beneficial way to provide health information on college campuses.”

Sevcik referred to on-campus resources — like for-credit courses or services at Boynton — where students can learn about drug abuse.

Groups should be thoughtful about what resources and materials they use when educating others and need to be careful to use strategies that encourage healthy use of drugs, she said.

SPEDE member and biology junior Daymian Snowden, said he and Burke-Smith are friends, and he got involved in the group as soon as he heard about it.

He said he thinks many students have inaccurate ideas about the effects of drugs, contributing to harmful decisions.

SPEDE members are researching drugs and gathering information from recently written academic articles or papers online and educational pamphlets reviewed by the School of Public Health, Snowden said.

Through his research, Snowden said he learned that some painkillers — often taken recreationally — belong to the same class as heroin and wishes students were aware of that.

“My goal…is to reduce the number of people making uninformed decisions about their drug and alcohol use,” he said. “When we approach students, it’s not as talking down to them or talking at them, it’s talking with them.”