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Five Lessons Drug Reformers Can Take Away From The Evolution Of Sex Policy – Rolling Stone

Throughout my time advocating for improving drug laws, I’ve often marked similarities between drug and sex policy. Historically, sex education laws and legislation surrounding sex were focused on abstinence-only rhetoric. This abstinence-only policy has been repeatedly proven ineffective, harming countless people and contributing to the United States’ high STD and teen pregnancy rates

Laws meant to control sexual activity, drug consumption and the education individuals receive about these topics have co-evolved for several decades. 

A Brief History of US Sex and Drug Control Laws

Abstinence-only sex education laws have been in place in the United States since 1981, despite being ineffective and incomplete. Currently, 35 states require abstinence education, while only 29 mandate safe sex education. Similarly, drug education programs like “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. have also been repeatedly proven ineffective. The War on Drugs, which began in 1972, has also been criticized for being racially and politically motivated and has done far more harm than good.

However, there has been progress in providing comprehensive sexual education and harm reduction for drug use. Activists and organizations have created resources for individuals to learn about sexual wellness and safe drug use. It is important for individuals to embrace harm reduction rather than abstinence or blame until legislative change is achieved. There is a proven correlation between irresponsible drug use and risky sexual behaviors in young adults, and comprehensive education improves both outcomes. Until successfully enacting legislative change, we are all responsible for embracing a mentality of harm reduction rather than abstinence or blame. 

5 Ways Drug Reform Activists Can Follow the Sex-Education Reform Model

More than a decade of drug harm reduction advocacy has taught me that improving education, access to services, and striking down nonsense abstinence-only policies in favor of helping people are some of the top actions we can take as a society. Whether you’re a college student as I was when I started the Ithaca College chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a burgeoning harm reduction activist or pushing policy like the New York State 911 Good Samaritan Law I helped pass, there is always action you can take. Let’s dive in below.

1. Work Directly in Harm Reduction 

Direct work in sexual harm reduction has become widespread recently on both an individual and organizational level. From volunteering as a clinic escort to encouraging open and honest conversations within a peer group, sexual health and harm reduction rhetoric have become increasingly normalized.  

Additionally, drug harm reduction efforts require volunteers and workers. Individuals and organizations can help by encouraging honest conversations about safe drug use. There are countless career and volunteer opportunities available with incredible organizations like DanceSafe for those who want to have their feet on the ground in harm reduction. 

2. Increase the Accessibility of Care

Access to STD protection through testing and free condoms has decreased the population spread of STDsCondom distribution programs and similar initiatives have brought care and protection to those without access and nonjudgmentally brought conversations about sexual health and wellness to the public.  

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Though access to sexual care has helped decrease stigma around sexual wellness topics, drug use is still highly stigmatized. Providing easy access to services like needle exchanges, free Narcan, and overdose education normalizes essential harm-reduction practices. The more access to care, the less stigma—and vice versa. 

3. Provide Free Clinics

Free healthcare clinics and STD screenings can provide lifesaving education and care to anyone who is sexually active. These initiatives have had a positive impact on countless lives. 

Those interested in drug reform can learn from this example. Harm reduction clinics need to be just as widespread to expand and normalize programs such as safe injection sites and drug-checking resources. 

4. Encourage Nonjudgmental Medical Care

Nonjudgment and non-discrimination are already policies for sexual wellness in healthcare: it is illegal to discriminate against patients based on “pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, [or] sex characteristics.”

Some similar laws are in place for safe drug use, but knowledge of these practices remains limited. Education about Good Samaritan Laws can encourage individuals to take action in an emergency. Nonjudgmental medical care was the basis behind drug possession decriminalization in Portugal, which saw increased voluntary drug treatment after removing criminal penalties. 

5. Start With the People to Enact Political Change

The push for reproductive rights and changes to sex legislation has always stemmed from activists and would not be what they are today without the hard work of pro-choice protestors, LGBT activists and everyone who came before them. 

Harm reduction legislation will take similar efforts. There are lobbying opportunities across the country, and you can help candidates who support harm-reduction policies. The Biden administration has begun pardoning federal cannabis possession prisoners. Still, we must continually urge politicians to keep their promises and push progress forward. 


This advice is especially for students: If a harm-reduction program doesn’t exist at your school or university, start one. You can begin a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy or create a new organization aimed directly at the needs of your community. I speak from experience: “Just Say Know” was a formative part of my college experience and played a significant role in getting me to where I am today. From starting an organization to having honest conversations with peers, changing your mindset to care advocacy rather than judgment is imperative. 

Abstain from Illogical Abstinence Rhetoric

Clearly, abstinence-only rhetoric does not work to prevent adverse outcomes with sexual activity or drug use. As we build a more equitable, health-centered future, we must move away from the punitive mindset of current sex and drug control laws. If we want to see our world become a better place for all, the only way forward is via harm reduction and care.

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