Student activists on the campaign trail

Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is one of America’s fastest growing organizations devoted to fighting drug war injustice. In January, they flexed their organizational muscle for the first time, massing their forces at a student political convention prior to the New Hampshire Democratic primary.
With just a dozen members attending the same convention four years earlier, SSDP was then just another fringe group. This time they sent 160 delegates, dominating the convention, succeeding in raising their agenda, but also alienating some of their fellow students.

The main focus of the SSDP is their opposition to the federal law that prohibits anyone so much as caught with a joint from applying for a federal college loan.

The 1998 amendment to the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) has denied federal loans to more than 124,000 US students with even a minor possession conviction. Rapists and murderers can pay their debt to society and step right up for their loan. But drug offenders aren’t deemed sufficiently punished by the criminal justice system.

Rather than protecting kids, the drug war is now preventing students from attending college and even kicking them out of high school.

Politicians on pot

The students listened to candidate stump speeches, ready to hold politicians accountable. And they did, wrangling commitments from Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Joseph Lieberman and Carol Moseley Braun to repeal the HEA. Kerry was the only one who said he’d continue the ban, but only for anyone convicted of sales, not just possession.

John Kerry also declared that there’s never been a “legitimate” drug war in the US, one focused, he said, on treatment and education. He decried nonviolent mandatory minimum sentences as “absurd,” and denounced Bush’s prosecution of patients in states that have passed medical use laws.

Dennis Kucinich engendered wild applause when he denounced the war on drugs and called for decriminalization. Kucinich said, “It’s a deeper issue, the issue of freedom ? what binds all of us as Americans together. Forget left or right, this is just such an issue.”

Young Americans

These young reformers are a slightly mixed bag, with some driven to join simply by the HEA’s obvious injustice.

National director Scarlett Swerdlow is still furious that back in high school her topic of drug reform was ruled inappropriate for a debate. That led her to hook up as a volunteer at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in Washington DC, where she then started to get really angry. And then it was off to co-found the SSDP chapter at Berkeley.

Freshman Elizabeth Carney has always “liked the feeling of being in opposition to the norm.” The SSDP is a good introduction to student activism, Carney figures, but it’s not about partying, since there are other ways to get pot if that’s all you’re looking for.

Though a joint has never passed her lips, freshman Katharine Amaral is a proud SSDP member. “It’s about the disadvantages people are put at because of the drug war,” she said. She added that she’d “love to see a drug-free America,” but since that won’t happen any time this century, she’d like the government to butt out.

Freshman Heather Kumer said, “So many SSDP members don’t even do drugs. People like to give us a bad name, but we don’t advocate or condemn drug use. We just advocate bodily autonomy and harm reduction.”

Indeed, you can search SSDP material high and low and find nary an endorsement of weed.

At the SSDP annual awards, not a single combustible appeared, not even in the basement bathrooms as the evening’s entertainment wore on. If an outsider had lit up, said one SSDP honcho, “We would have asked it be put out. We’re particular about our image.” After all, no one needs to join a political movement to burn some herb.

The only pro-pot exhortation came at the awards dinner, when the SSDP’s then-national director, Darrell Rogers, spoke of ending prohibition. He said, “When your kids ask you what you did to end marijuana prohibition ? you better be able to say you did more than smoke it.”

Polite protest

There was talk of a “shaming” of the former drug czar, William Bennett, with SSDP members to stand and silently turn their backs during his speech. An old-fashioned seizure of the moral high ground, it was astonishingly rejected as being too disruptive.

Instead, they placed plastic cups on the tables where the hundreds of students sat. Labeled “Urine Sample” on one side, the label on the other side stated that Bennett was requesting specimens to ensure “a drug-free audience and the safety of all attendees.”

The mild protest led to a lot of talk that the drug reformers had crossed over a line. The SSDP was castigated by the sponsors for distributing material without official recognition. Even so, conference co-director Wayne Lesperance says the members are still welcome at the next conference in four years.

It’s not all beer and skittles

Not everything went perfectly for the reformers. The SSDP’s attempted press conference fell flat. It was the ultimate exercise in preaching to the choir as not a single reporter was present.

At some point the zealous SSDP members wore out their welcome with many of the 500 other student delegates to this convention. There was a lot of applause when someone sarcastically “apologized” for asking a non-drug policy question.

One high school student showed up with a large sign calling for no further drug policy questions. He favored legal medical use of marijuana, but just got fed up at the constant drumbeat of similar questions. He felt that issues such as nuclear proliferation “might be as important as the marijuana question.”

Swerdlow remains unapologetic. “We had 160 activists there with a mission, focusing on the candidates and getting straight answers regarding drug reform.” She added that few drug reformers have previously had that opportunity.

Future goals

The SSDP still has some worlds to conquer. The offending HEA provision has been partially disavowed by its congressional sponsor, drug warrior Republican Mark Souder. Souder now says that in applying it, the Department of Education misunderstood the law’s intent, that it should apply only to those caught with that disqualifying roach or pill while actually receiving student aid, not at any point stretching back into their wretched youth.

Acknowledging that the HEA has driven the SSDP’s growth, Swerdlow asserts that its repeal will indicate the SSDP’s success and allow them to shift to other priorities, such as repealing mandatory minimum prison sentences and the fight for medical marijuana.

Outlining future priorities, board chairman Matt Atwood said the group will advocate around issues of student privacy and drug testing; spending on incarceration rather than education; reaching out to international student groups by opposing the Andean drug war, particularly the spraying of defoliants; and harm reduction rather than abstinence-based policies.

? Students for Sensible Drug Policy: 1623 Connecticut Ave, NW, 3rd Floor, Washington, DC, 20009; tel 202-293-4414; email [email protected];web