What Do We Want? A Plan B Vending Machine! When Do We Want It? Now!

Illustrated by Paula Volchok.
When students return to Stanford University this month they will find a curious machine in their midst. Nailed to the wall in the gender neutral bathroom in the Old Union building, it looks just like every other vending machine on campus. Except this one doesn’t sell Doritos or Dasani. Instead, it sells MyWay, a generic brand of emergency contraception, and male and female condoms.
It’s safer-sex on-demand, and for that, students can thank Rachel Samuels, last year’s executive chief of staff for the student body, who spent three of her four years in college badgering administrators to get the project done. “I must have met with at least a dozen different offices. I would also add it to any agenda that the executives —the president, and vice president of the student body— and I would have for meetings with any administrator,” Samuels says. “Part of what took so long is that people are busy. But I also think there’s a habit of waiting students out — they wait for students to graduate and then they don’t have to do anything.”
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Indeed Samuels did graduate before the vending machine was a sure thing, nevertheless she persisted (to borrow a popular phrase). Every week this summer, she checked in dutifully with the administrator in charge. Finally, at the beginning of August, they promised her the work order for installation was in progress. Right before Labor Day, they confirmed the machine was open for business, a full week early.
If revolutions were built on the tedious, small-step Leslie Knope-like perseverance of bureaucratic warriors, then the fight for Plan B would qualify as one of the greatest. Since 2010, when the first Plan B vending machine was installed at Shippensburg University, a small, rural liberal arts college in Pennsylvania that didn’t have an on-campus pharmacy, student government wonks have been quietly driving a push to get machines on campus. Dartmouth, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Pomona College have all quietly added vending machines in recent years, driven by students who have tirelessly campaigned for them, surveying their fellow students, reading up on legislative hurdles, and interjecting the issue into every meeting with administrators. Today there are projects underway at as many as 30 campuses, from Washington state to Washington D.C. Plus one in Canada. Whether or not each campus gets a machine, momentum is growing.
“Every other week, I get an email from a student from a different campus looking to start their own project,” says Parteek Singh, a University of California, Davis graduate who spent his first summer out of college coaching would-be Plan B champions. Last spring, the triumph of his student government career — UC Davis’ Plan B vending machine — went viral after he made his profile picture a photo of himself with the machine. More than 1,400 of his friends shared his photo. Then local news caught on. Ultimately the story was covered everywhere from CNN to this website, and ever since the messages from other students haven’t stopped.
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Singh sets up conference calls after work (he just started at an investment firm in Sacramento) to walk students through his own complex process, and advise them on starting their own. He’s presenting at a health conference later this fall, and he’s looking to partner with a non-profit which might be able to help him organize and amplify the cause further. “I’m here to help,” Singh says. “I want this resource on every college campus.”
Although the “Plan B” vending machine might not seem as urgent as other campus causes (Title IX enforcement, desegregation, free speech) it’s hard not to see it as an important step in the greater war for stigma-free access to contraception.
College-aged people are both famously sexually active and famously inexperienced, so they have a unique need for easy access to the so-called morning after pill. While most colleges today do indeed stock emergency contraception at campus health centers at a subsidized price, many of them are often not open during prime hours, such as evenings or weekends. With emergency contraception, every hour counts. While it can be taken up to 72 hours after sex to prevent pregnancy, the best time to take it is within the first 12 hours after unprotected sex. When the on-campus pharmacy is closed, students have to travel off-campus. And since many of them don’t have cars, that means they have to wait until they can get a ride or put together the extra cash they’ll need to buy it at its non-subsidized price.
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Even if they can easily leave campus, it’s still a toss-up whether students can get their hands on the drug. Many pharmacists today still either don’t stock Plan B or they simply refuse to sell it unrestricted to young people, despite the fact that the FDA approved it for over-the-counter sale to women (and men) of all ages back in 2013.
“Pharmacists have a right to regulate their own stores,” explains Annaliese Johnson, a former organizer for NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland who worked with student leaders at the University of Maryland on their vending machine efforts. Translation: Just because Plan B and similar products can be sold freely on pharmacy shelves, like tampons or ibuprofen, that doesn’t mean they must be. Indeed, a study of almost 1,000 pharmacies published this June in Pediatrics found that not only did just 83% of pharmacies stock emergency contraception, 51% of pharmacists told researchers posing as teens that they either needed a prescription or to be a certain age to get the drug.
In addition to solving all of the above, the vending machine also removes the face-to-face interaction. Alex Samuels (Rachel’s brother), led the efforts to get a machine at Pomona College back in 2012. He first started working on it when a friend sent him an article about Shippensburg’s machine. “She mentioned how she had basically been shamed at the student health center for seeking out Plan B,” Samuels says. “They asked her a lot of probing questions and had treated her with a lot of disdain. And she felt the vending machine would have solved all of that.”
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Student advocates have so far found that like pharmacists, college administrators seem similarly unwilling or unable to accept the idea of unrestricted access. Samuels, from Stanford, says that a huge hurdle throughout the process was the administration’s near-paranoia about getting sued. “They just kept saying over and over ‘we’re not sure this is legal,’ and they needed to check in with all these different people,” Samuels says. “But then every time they heard back from someone clearing it they’d just say ‘but we still don’t know if it’s legal.’ Every time it was like, ‘What? This is California, you can buy this product on Amazon!’”
Then again, maybe Stanford was right to be so worried. Just ask Sarah Riback, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, one of three leaders of an effort to get a Plan B vending machine in the student union at UMD. Riback got involved when organizers from NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland invited campus feminists to join their efforts to get 24-7 access for emergency contraception on campus at all of Maryland’s public universities. “The vending machine was just one idea for colleges to get to 24-7 access,” Johnson, the NARAL organizer, says. “But once we floated it with students, they latched onto it.”
After spending a year working with Johnson to present research to the administration, build political support, work out logistics, and more, Riback’s project stalled at the very end when they ran into a roadblock out of left field: a 1950s Maryland state law that prohibits any pharmaceuticals, OTC or RX, from being sold in vending machines. The Maryland Secretary of Health can grant the university an exemption, which Riback is still holding out hope for, but for now the only viable solution is to make generic emergency contraception available at a 24-hour convenience store on campus.
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Photo courtesy of Parteek Singh.
Even for those who don’t come up against a random state law, there will be plenty of other hurdles as they navigate the complex, seemingly never-ending bureaucracy of the modern campus — from finding funding and identifying key stakeholders to putting together a detailed proposal and building support from the administration. Finally, there’s the hardest part of all: Follow through. “Really your job as the student is just to advocate, to constantly follow up, and push them to do it,” Singh says. The number of people it takes to make these decisions is unique to each school. But this latest crop of humble campus public servants, all inspired by Singh, have no qualms about figuring it out: They’ve already spent all summer poring over research, calling pharmacies, and haranguing administrators.
Haydn Bryon, a junior and the Chief of Staff for the Student Body at Boise State University, first heard about Singh’s UC Davis machine in a story on Snapchat Discover, and immediately saw an opportunity to bring a vending machine to Boise State. He used Google and Facebook to track down Singh’s email and the pair texted all summer. Bryon spent his summer off-hours drafting (and re-drafting) a 10-slide proposal deck, complete with statistics like “74% of college students report being sexually active,” pie charts illustrating the hours emergency contraception isn’t available, and campus maps, showing the distance students have to go to get it.
Sneha Verma, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, has her plan all worked out: The school’s Multicultural Student Government will handle the vending machine’s upfront costs out of their budget, but in order to keep it stocked in perpetuity, she is proposing that 8 cents be added to student fees. The bad news: The body that can approve a change like that doesn’t actually meet again until April 2018. So, until then, Verma is working on a student survey. She is expecting some pushback, if not from administrators, certainly from parents, so she wants to be prepared with facts. “It’s unrealistic to believe that people aren’t having sex,” she says. “At the end of the day, college is not just an education. At college, you’re also learning how to live on your own, and make responsible decisions. And the university should support that.”
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As of now, it looks like the University of Puget Sound might just win the race to become the next school with news of an installation. Student Body President Amanda Diaz’s plan for their machine was “locked and loaded” a full month before school started, complete with where they will buy the machine (via an approved vendor from the school’s Associate Dean of Business Services), what they will stock it with (condoms, cough drops, tampons, and of course Plan B), and how they will pay for it (out of the student government budget). This week Diaz got approval to place the machine in the student union.
Though she still has to wait for the student senate to approve the purchase and finance request before it’s installed, Diaz is pretty sure she’s won this one — support in the senate is already strong. It might just be one more school, and one more vending machine, but in the fight for fair access to healthcare, every victory counts.
America is at war with itself — and schools across the country are ground zero for some of the most intense battles of our generation. Over the next month we will deep dive right into the controversies, meet the students and dig into WTF is really going on at institutions of higher learning, and what that means for the rest of us.
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