Youth Organization for Drug Action is a network of organisations and individuals set up in 2011 to meet the needs of young activists and professionals who have been disenfranchised when it comes to determining drug policy, but who are amongst those most affected by drugs and the drug laws.
YODA is a part of a growing movement of people speaking out against dogmatic and stigmatising drug policies. Students and young people have been at the heart of every action towards ending discrimination and it is essential that all members work together towards building a truly international movement.
Jan Stola is a co-founder of YODA and has been its coordinator for 3 years now. In 2013 YODA was registered as a foundation of which he is also the president. Jan is 26 and he lives in Warsaw, Poland. He graduated in Social Policy at the University of Warsaw, and has been involved in various NGOs working in the field of drugs and drug policy for about 8 years now and have been its coordinator for 3 years now. In 2013 we were registered as a foundation of which I am also the president.
Youth for drug action, it sounds very transcendent. Can you explain the idea behind YODA and how it originated?
During our work with non-governmental organizations in the field of drugs, my colleagues and I observed a need for a regional network that would support young activists and professionals involved in this area, as well as represent young people who are usually most affected by drugs and drug policies, at European and international level. Obviously there are existing networks linking drug NGOs all around the world doing a wonderful job advocating for more youth-friendly drug policies on an international level, but we felt that there is a need for a network of young people working in the relevant areas in European countries because the specific issues our region faces and the possibilities for more effective cooperation with European institutions and governments.
According to your knowledge and experience, what are the biggest problems related with drugs concerning young people? Is it drug treatment, harm reduction or something else?
These issues are different in each country and region, but in my opinion the three biggest problems young people in Europe face are the following:
First, limited access to effective drug treatment and harm reduction services. This results from a number of factors, from limited funding opportunities for NGOs running such programs to legal barriers preventing the youth from using certain services.
Second, criminalization of possession of drugs for personal use. Such laws are still strictly enforced in a number of European countries, and not only lead to senseless and disproportional criminalization of young people, but also scare many of them away from seeking help for drug-related problems.
And the third, New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). There is an alarming trend regarding the number of substances appearing on the market, their (unknown) long-term effects, hospital admission, overdoses as well as regarding the number of people who have started to inject NPS. So far the measures adopted by the European governments on this issue, based mostly on continuous scheduling of new substances, didn’t prove too effective.
What motivates young people to take part in drug action?
I think there are two main factors. First of all, the field of drugs and drug policy is really important in terms of social work and also extremely interesting. Most YODA members are graduates in social work, public policy, public health, psychology and related fields, and simply chose this area of involvement because of their strong interest. Secondly, lots of young people involved in YODA or other organizations have experienced the effects of bad drug policies themselves, or their friends or community has suffered as a result. Personally, both of these factors convinced me to start involvement in NGOs. When I was 17 I was arrested under suspicion for possession of 0.6 gram of cannabis, hardly a traumatic experience but one that made me realize how absurd the Polish drug laws were, as there were over 20 people on the state budget – police, prosecutors, judges etc. – involved in that case. Later on I started my studies in social policy, which got me interested in drugs and drug policy as a public issue.
Since YODA is a relatively young organization, what have been your biggest achievements and challenges util now?
I am really happy that we have managed such a large and diverse network of people and organizations, wonderful experts in their areas and great to work with. We currently have members in 13 European countries, and this number will hopefully grow by another two or three this year. We have organized a number of meetings across Europe where YODA members exchanged their experience and ideas and participated in international events. Last year during a session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs we organized a side-event with the Government of Poland and our members from Belgium (Plug-INN) and Serbia (Re Generation) where we discussed the effects of drug policies in our countries with around 100 top diplomats, UN officials and civil society representatives.
The biggest challenges so far were gaining the international recognition necessary for effective advocacy (for example, there are some formal barriers in joining certain consultative bodies, such as the requirement to be registered for at least two years), obtaining funding (since we are a fairly new organization) and coordination of the people working in all these different countries who all have their own responsibilities in their organizations.
Do you think that YODA has gained satisfactory visibility and what are your intentions for development?
Last year was especially fruitful when it comes to international visibility and contacts. We have been chosen as a member of the European Civil Society Forum on Drugs, we established a relationship with the Council of Europe and strengthened our connections with the UN agencies – any day soon we will have a decision on our UN ECOSOC consultative status. We have also created good contacts with government officials, both in Europe and in other regions, and tens of NGOs all around the world.
Right now our plan is to have a valuable involvement in the work of the groups mentioned above and to prove we are a meaningful partner when it comes to shaping policies affecting young people. We also plan to continue to increase the number of our members, especially in Western Europe, Scandinavia and former USSR, as we are already very strongly represented in Central and South-Eastern Europe.
Another plan for this year is to start a series of training courses on the various issues related to youth drug use, such as party-working, media communication, working with volunteers and so on, for young professionals from drug NGOs. We hope to keep developing this programme to reach at least 100 alumnae by the end of 2018, and possibly organize a large youth European drug conference in 2019-2020.
At the end we would really like to know and I am sure that some of our readers would also like to know, is there a connection of the acronym of your organization with the Star Wars movie character of Master Yoda?
We were looking for a name that would reflect for whom and what we stand for. We were trying different words and acronyms, simply brainstorming. I think that the acronym of one of the proposed names was YADO or something like that, and someone realized that if you move the letters it will be YODA. Youth Organisations for Drug Action sounded just like we wanted and people liked this idea, so we stuck with that name. We were not inspired by the Star Wars character, nor we do feel anyhow related to it, but it just sounded smooth.