DPA Podcast Episode 34: Six Months Later, Safety First Drug Education Continues to Evolve

When the Drug Policy Alliance publicly released our harm reduction-based drug education curriculum Safety First in October, the world was a different place. In the months since, it’s evolved into an even more crucial resource. We’ve had continuing conversations with students, parents and teachers; a collaboration with the mental health foundation Made of Millions; and adaptations for Google Classroom. I talked to Senior Program Manager Sasha Simon about how and why we’re continuing the push to make thoughtful and compassionate drug education part of more people’s lives.

For a look back at the program’s launch, listen to Episode 27. You can download the curriculum on our website for free, and give your feedback.

Listen to more podcasts

Follow us on Twitter @drugsnstuffDPA


(Jazzy intro music in)

Welcome to Drugs and Stuff, a podcast from the Drug Policy Alliance.

(Jazzy intro music out)

Gabriella Miyares  (0:10)  
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Drugs and Stuff. I'm your host, Gabriella Miyares. Now, when I was growing up in the late 80s, early 90s, the only drug education curriculum I had access to was DARE. This was what we all had to take in school. And it was abstinence based. So basically, we were told, "don't do drugs, drugs are bad." That's all we really came away with. So as you might imagine, generations growing up with this didn't really get much information that could have been useful to them. So that's why Drug Policy Alliance created Safety First, it's a drug education curriculum based in harm reduction. And it's to equip new generations with the knowledge that they need to keep themselves and others safe. Now, if you've listened to our podcast before, we've covered Safety First on several episodes. And actually a few months ago, I had Sasha Simon, who's the Safety First Senior Program Manager here at DPA, on to talk about the public release of our drug education curriculum, which was a huge deal. And I can't believe it, but it's already been over six months since that public release. So I asked Sasha to come back onto the podcast to tell us a little about how things are going with Safety First, what we've seen, the reactions we've gotten from parents and teachers, and, you know, why Safety First is really relevant even in this moment, in the midst of a pandemic.

Gabriella Miyares  (1:44)  
So I'm excited to welcome Sasha Simon, my colleague, she is the Senior Program Manager for Safety First. So, my first question for you is, that it's been over six months since Safety First's public launch. And a lot has happened in the meantime -- can you tell our listeners what we've seen in the months since Safety First has been released?

Sasha Simon  (2:07)  
Absolutely. And it's -- so much has happened since Safety First was released back in October of 2019. I mean, we did a lot of work at DPA before it was released publicly to really develop it, vet it, I think everybody knows we piloted it and evaluated it twice, once in New York and then in San Francisco. So once we put it out into the world, it was finally our first opportunity to see how everyone else who hadn't been working on it all of this time was going to receive it, see what they were going to do with it. And overwhelmingly people are excited about it. People are downloading it -- so far, we have about, we're on our way to about 1600 unique downloads right now, which is, which is cool, and they come from all over the world, which is also amazing to see that so many people from all over find value in it. From all of the states we have downloaders -- unsurprisingly, New York and California really topped the list. But, I mean, we have folks downloading from everywhere. Maine, Texas, Colorado, Iowa, England, British Columbia, you name it. So that's awesome. And I think, you know, one of the things we're really trying to figure out now are, who are these people, you know, who are these 16 -- nearly 1600 -- unique downloaders, and what are they doing with the curriculum? So we, we've gotten some of -- you know, we've gotten some anecdotal ideas of, you know, what people are doing; I know that there's some teachers who are, after they teach about health and policy, and also teach a little bit about restorative justice, and you know, that the, really the values of harm reduction which are you know, centered in compassion, are considered and are centered in self respect, dignity, and you know, recognizing the agency of other people, like I know, one modification that a teacher made was, instead of creating, let's say, like a punitive system, right, if we can look at something other than prisons, to help treat people who may have problematic substance use or you know, may have committed a crime that may be associated with their drug use, what do you think now that you've learned restorative practices and restorative justice practices? What do you think would be a good alternative to help people actually cope? And so it's been really awesome, to, you know, it was awesome in that scenario, because that teacher actually showed me the posters that their that their students had made of, of these like recreational, rehabilitative, and really imaginative facilities that were really real, or could be really real. And it was just really cool to see not only teachers really reimagine how they could teach, but also help students reimagine how they can engage -- one, with their own education, but also just in their own sense of healing and in their, how they, how they can engage as participants in community healing and community health. So I think it's been really amazing. I think we've seen a lot of good things. I know that I want to know of all these people who have downloaded it, how they're using it, if they're using it by themselves, and just kind of like, that's what they go to on their computer when they want to look at drug facts, or you know, are they are they teaching it to a class load of like, 120 students? So that's something we're trying to figure out in real time. We actually have developed a Safety First user feedback form, which I hope anyone who's listening and has also used the curriculum fills out because our goal has always really been to meet teachers and meet parents exactly where they're at, with exactly with what they need. And you know, I think people are excited because they got exactly that, but they got that because they told us, you know, what they wanted, they told us what was going to work best and realistically for them in the classroom, and we took all of that to heart. And so I hope, I hope people really take that to heart this time around now that it's been out there, there's been the opportunity to use it and, you know, have whatever feelings you have around it, please like, share that with us. So we can know what to do looking into the, the 2020-2021 school year. And we can really consider, you know, especially within the context right now of distance learning, and online learning how we can really make that easy for the people who are using Safety First.

Gabriella Miyares  (6:38)  
Absolutely. And we'll talk a little more later about how, especially now, you know, with distance learning how things may change, but absolutely, thanks for that overview. I also wanted to talk briefly about one of the things that's come up in the months since the release, which is a new partnership with an organization called Made of Millions, and a livestreamed series that you're hosting through them called First of All, and you like to say that First of All is all about dispelling junk science around drugs and drug education. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sasha Simon  (7:14)
Absolutely, absolutely. So Made of Millions, first of all, is a mental health foundation that's all about destigmatizing mental health, mental illness and, and access to mental health resources. And they also do their best to democratize access to mental health resources. And most importantly, for the work that I've been able to do with them, is they also provide a platform for a range of advocates to really provide a number of different media, be it written blogs, livestreamed web series -- First of All is not the only livestreamed web series on the Made of Millions website -- but platforms that will allow us to really engage with experts, and their livestreamed so we get to engage with live audiences and you know, really, based on the topic, really offer what it is that we know, and really, you know, get an idea of what it is that people are, what it is that they want to know, especially around drugs. So with First of All, it was an opportunity to really contextualize the "why" of the curriculum. I think that within more of the drug policy world, in the -- in our harm reduction enclaves, we get it, you know, and we're excited about it. And we know a lot more of the context, we have a lot more knowledge and facts, we know a lot more not even just trivia, we were actually engaged with, you know, combating the war on drugs. You know, for decades, many folks have been, and so they absolutely get the context of why there should be a harm reduction based drug education curriculum and why that's timely, but many people do not, and are not actively engaged within that context, even if, even if now is the moment to really get behind it. And so with First of All, it allowed us to really open up conversations that allowed folks to have a greater context for why they should really reconsider how they approach their own drug use, how they think about other people or their own drug use, and how we engage drug policies. So it was, it was seven episodes long, because that's what we felt like really gave the breadth of everything that parents, teachers, really any millennial or Gen Xer or perpetuator of, you know, the kind of nonsense junk science around drugs that we've been putting out there for decades and decades. We thought seven episodes would be you know, enough for, for folks to really get what's going on here. So there was an introduction to what even harm reduction is, because, you know, we know that a lot of -- a lot of people associate the term with syringe exchange, access, and, and things of that nature. And so it was like how does that fit into a classroom? So giving some context to that. And we had an entire episode, and each episode was an hour long, entire episode dedicated to that. Another episode speaking to, you know, the science of drugs and themselves without stigma, without bias, without making anyone feel bad, because then when you can speak about the science of drug use and how it impacts the body, you have a clearer idea of how policy should actually be decided upon. And it's not based upon morality, because morality is not necessarily what's going to keep people safe. And it's definitely not keeping anyone -- that sense of morality is not, you know, keeping anyone, or even young people, from doing drugs. And then we got to speak a bit more plainly about why we cope. So speaking to a lot of the issues that young people deal with within adolescence, but not even young people, adults, which could be bullying, victimization, having a family member be deported, coming out as queer, living with a chronic illness, anything that can really make us feel pain, or make us, make us feel trauma, or make us feel othered. And then on the flip side, you know, we really talked about a lot of policies that are representative of the state really enacting that, that trauma onto individuals. So, you know, for example, being criminalized for your drug use, right? If you're using drugs because you're experiencing pain or trauma or you know, anything really, the idea that, you know, you would then be criminalized and punished versus shown compassion is something that I think really resonates with young people. And I think it was a strong connection we were able to make between that and then also policy and how stigma and bias continue to really be what drives a lot of our drug policies. And I really think that the First of All, and I hope other people think the First of All web series was a good opportunity to understand harm reduction. And that's why we need to teach a generation of young people how to have that type of approach and how to have a compassionate approach to themselves and to others, because that is what's actually going to keep us safe. That is what's actually going to, you know, decrease all, you know, risky behavior surrounding drug use, but not even just that -- within the context of COVID. And it's all being, you know, them not being in school and health kind of being at the forefront. That's -- harm reduction and compassion are really, it's the way regardless of what the health issue is. And so, Safety First and DPA have really been at the forefront of pushing that, that message, in my opinion, to young people. And so with the First of All series, and during this, you know, this moment, you know, during, during the COVID-19 crisis, I think the power and the value of Safety First has really come to the fore. And we've really been able to demonstrate that, and show that with the First of All series, or at least I hope.

Gabriella Miyares  (13:17)  
Absolutely. And I encourage our listeners to check it out. It's at, you can just search First of All, and you can look at all seven episodes there. So Sasha, you you mentioned just now, you know, we're obviously in a very unique time right now, especially when you're looking at how people are viewing education and learning. Like a lot of it has moved remote, to distance learning. So how does Safety First fit into all of that, and you know, what value does it bring at this moment?

Sasha Simon  (13:51)  
So that's, that's an excellent question on a lot of different -- and Gabriella, I think that on on the technical aspects, right, like we're all at home now, students are no longer in school and teachers are having to find a way to engage with their students online. And there's, and there's varying types of experience doing that prior to this moment of COVID. And so, you know, what I think has been really awesome about Safety First is that, it's always been available online. So that's great. And it still is. And so for those teachers who have already been using it, they've been able to adapt it for distance learning, but you know, something that we have been working on in real time based on their suggestion, and their recommendation, is to make it as Google Classroom compatible and Google Classroom friendly as possible. And Gabriella, you probably remember that, you know, that was, that was the original intention, in many ways in the first place is, you know, make this very Google Drive friendly, Google Classroom friendly, because I think we knew in the future that this might actually become a thing, and that we'd want to open up accessibility to teachers in this way and sure enough, it happened, so --

Gabriella Miyares  (15:05)  
Under different circumstances than we thought.

Sasha Simon  (15:07)  
Yeah, but you know, I'm -- I hope that shows the level of forethought, like I think what's really -- I just want to give a plug to the, like, the DPA comms team real quick, because it's a very small but mighty team. And, you know, not even just with Safety First. We have a whole suite of drug education resources that folks can check out -- like we have the curriculum, we're making it Google Classroom compatible. We also have the podcast, right, where we do a lot of, you know, teaching. We have the Matters of Substance animated videos. Like, we create a lot of things to meet people exactly where they're at. And so I just find a lot of value, and it feels feels warm and fuzzy inside to be at a moment to you know, really give teachers something that we were already anticipating that they they might need. So, anyway that, that's exciting. So working on that, and adapting some of the activities to make them, you know, useful and make them engaging for at-home use. So there's a lot of technical changes and also pedagogical changes that have come through COVID-19 and all this being at home. But you know, the other value that Safety First really drives home right now is again, the value of health education, and specifically harm reduction based education. Again, like harm reduction is all about reducing harm. It's about meeting people where they're at, and it's about being compassionate. And I think a lot of people, fortunately, and I guess, maybe not, but fortunately are learning that lesson right now -- that looking out for yourself and looking out -- it's looking out for yourself as a way of looking out for other people. Giving people the access to resources they need to look out for themselves, and to take care of their own health, is -- is crucial. You cannot deny people of their basic rights and access to their basic rights, and then expect them to be able to, you know, perform at their best or to be their healthiest. And we need everybody to be healthy right now. So, I'm really grateful -- as crazy as COVID is, I'm very grateful that, you know, we, young people are actually able to see in real time that community health is not just a concept, it's a real thing, like how your community is doing is going to have an impact on you. And you have a personal responsibility of, of taking care of yourself. And so that's been really cool. And I think it's been really cool to flip it, you know, on the other end, to speak to personal agency and speak to you know, autonomy and making sure that people have access to resources as they need them. So if you are in real time, let's say you're at home and you're maybe overindulging you know a little bit in the cannabis for example, because you know, you're feeling more stressed, you're feeling more anxious, you're, you're feeling whatever -- it's important that we make sure people have access to, let's say the mental health resources they may need, and at the moment where they choose to access those resources. But I think a lot of the work of DPA has been to really highlight, especially through mass criminalization, the ways in which we've stripped away people's basic needs to be able to take care of themselves -- and not even just through mass criminalization, but also through mass bias, and mass stigmatization, that says, hey, if you use drugs, maybe you're not so smart. And so I should make decisions for you and on your behalf when you know, that's just not the case. And you know, there are a lot of teachers and school administrators right now who are concerned about their students who are at home right now. They're concerned about their mental health needs. They're also concerned that they might be leaning into, you know, substances because of how they're feeling at home. So we -- Safety First provides such an awesome opportunity for schools and teachers and administrators to really engage in a new way around student drug use. Because we can't have a whole generation of students go back to school, we'll see, but go back to school in the fall, and then be criminalized or be punished or be received with zero tolerance at all, for maybe a bad coping skill they picked up in the middle of a frickin pandemic. Like, you, we really got to check ourselves and quite literally, before we wreck ourselves, because we already know what we're all experiencing. We need to be -- give young people that grace, and that berth, too, that they'll need to cope. And if we don't like the ways that we're coping, we need to embrace them with compassion versus punishment. And so I'm, again, it's unfortunate, but I am grateful for the ways in which this moment is really highlighting that, you know, for drug education and health education more broadly.

Gabriella Miyares  (20:04)  
Absolutely. Thanks so much. I really appreciate all the work that you've done putting out Safety First coming on to speak with us today and kind of reflecting on where it's gone in the past few months. And you know, can't wait to see where it goes next. So, where can folks learn more?

Sasha Simon  (20:23)  
So folks can always learn more at our website, If they want to download Safety First, you can go to Also, if you've used the curriculum, I want to ask you a huge favor and please, please, please give us your feedback and complete our feedback form. That's at so SF as in Safety First feedback, and it would be a huge help. We want to be able to update this thing for the 2020-2021 school year. So if we can get you guys's feedback, we really are gonna be sure to incorporate it. So please download and please let us know what you think.

Gabriella Miyares  (21:05)  
Great, thanks again, Sasha. And as Sasha mentioned, there's a lot of resources available on our website around Safety First and everything else that we talked about today. And I really thank you for coming on. 

Sasha Simon  (21:20)  
I'm happy to be back on! Happy six months!

Gabriella Miyares  (21:22)  
Thanks. Same to you. 

Sasha Simon  (21:24)  
All right, Thanks, Gabriella.

Gabriella Miyares  (21:33)  
Thanks to Sasha, and to all of the teachers and students that have helped us bring Safety First into the world. If you, or someone you know, is an educator or is interested in learning more about Safety First, they can visit, as Sasha mentioned. And the work that we do with our small team really does change the lives of young people, through Safety First and through the other work that we do. If you're able, consider making a donation to support our work. You can visit That's all for today's episode. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @drugsnstuffDPA. Thanks for tuning in, and we hope you'll join us next time.

(Jazzy outro music in)

Drugs and Stuff is brought to you by the Drug Policy Alliance. If you like what you hear in the podcast, do us a favor and rate the show on iTunes. Give it five stars and a nice review. Also, we'd love to hear from you. Tweet at us @drugsnstuffDPA. Use the hashtag #drugsandstuff. Check out our website to see the other work we do, sign up for our emails, and donate. Special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller, and to the hard working staff of the Drug Policy Alliance for all of their work. Thanks for listening.

(Jazzy outro music out)

Real Drug Education