“We’re in a fight for freedom, for the right of equality,” said Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s (SSDP) all-American executive director Scarlett Swerdlow. “The war on drugs is being waged in the name of young people. We’re here to say: Not in our name.” She was speaking at her organization’s sixth annual conference at the University of Maryland last November.
Former SSDP director Shawn Heller, who gave a rousing speech that morning, reiterated Swerdlow’s message. “It’s our responsibility to change things, to take back our constitution, our laws and our country,” he declared, before lambasting John Ashcroft for hijacking the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in the name of freedom.
More than 300 students and drug policy reform leaders attended the three-day event. The conference began with a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, when more than 50 students put on power gear and met with their Congressional representatives.
“We wanted to give students the opportunity to bring concerns regarding drug policy to their representatives,” SSDP Legislative Director Ross Wilson told Cannabis Culture. “Students have been engaged in letter writing and local campaigns for years. We thought it was time to bring them to the hill and let them speak face to face with the people who represent them.”
“On the issue of the Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision, students received a sympathetic response,” Wilson continued. “The task now is to follow up and make sure that sympathy translates into action. We hope that an entire day of legislators being held accountable will encourage them to do the right thing. They’ve said they’ll repeal the law for four years. Hopefully, now, they’ll do that.”
The HEA drug provision is the main thrust of SSDP’s work. This law, the spawn of Representative Mark Souder, denies federal financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense. A person could murder, rape, even commit treason, and still receive financial aid for school. But get busted with your boyfriend’s pipe in your car, like SSDP member Marisa Garcia, and your chance at higher education flies out the window.
“It’s wrong to punish someone by denying them education,” Garcia told the conference assembly. “Especially for a past conviction they’ve already paid for.” Garcia pointed out that she is one of three children in a single-parent home. Financial aid was critical for her to go to college, and because students who require aid are typically from lower income families, the law disproportionately punishes them.
The legislators were sympathetic, and while not all supported the full repeal, many supported what’s become known as “the Souder compromise.”
“We think the Souder compromise would be a step forward,” Wilson said. “It will get some students back in school. However, it is not a fix and it does not address the fundamental problems with the law. It is still important to get the full repeal.”
Growth and maturity
While the HEA drug provision was the focus of the lobby day, the rest of the conference was a mix of lectures, workshops and debates designed to inspire the organization’s chapters. Workshops included “Making a Dynamic SSDP Chapter,” “Using the Media,” and “Engaging the Political Process.” There was also a screening of BUSTED: The Citizens Guide to Surviving Police Encounters, the foremost movie that trains young people to deal with law enforcement.
Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) executive director Rob Kampia spoke on recent Election Day victories, when 17 out of 20 marijuana-related ballot initiatives passed. Kampia also spearheads the MPP Foundation, which is the foremost grant-giver in marijuana policy reform. He openly shared his tactics for winning, and lessons he’s learned from years working on the issue. He encouraged students to apply for grants ? nearly every marijuana victory this year came directly from the MPP or a group who received an MPP grant.
Kampia also made himself accessible to students at the conference, attending both conference days and the Saturday night after-party. He wasn’t the only drug policy reform leader to do so. Drug Reform Coordination Network director David Borden, Drug War Chronicle editor Phil Smith, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation director Eric Sterling, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies director Rick Doblin, Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative director Charles Thomas, and the entire SSDP Board and staff, among many others, were there to answer questions and have discussions about drug policy and strategies.
“I think this conference shows that SSDP is maturing as an organization,” said Phil Smith, whose Drug War Chronicle is an incredible weekly original news source. “Student activist groups always suffer from rapid turnover by their very nature, but the SSDP has managed to change its national leadership this year without losing momentum and without losing sight of its primary goal, full repeal of the HEA anti-drug provision,” he observed. “This conference was well-organized and packed with practical information for the kids to take back home with them, and I give the group kudos for bringing in speakers who would challenge their beliefs.”
While many of the students attending the conference were already SSDP members, some students attended out of curiosity and to explore alternatives to current policies. Mike Roberts, a Rutgers University student, took a break from his work-study program at the Department of Justice to attend the conference. “They gave me the day off, but I’m paying for it,” he said with a smile.
While Roberts is not necessarily supportive of liberalizing drug laws, he did acknowledge that “punishing people is prolonging the problem and creating more problems,” and that currently, “the government spends the majority of its drug war money on supply reduction. We should shift it so that we spend more on prevention and education.”
Also in attendance were Leslie Miller and her son Jason of Chestertown, Maryland. Miller found out about the conference while surfing the internet for information on drug policy. Just six weeks before the conference, her home was raided early in the morning by police looking for drugs. It was Jason’s 18th birthday, and he woke with the muzzle of an M16 in his face. They found half a gram of marijuana in Jason’s room, and less than 50 grams in Leslie’s possession. Leslie uses the herb medicinally. The family is now determined to learn about the drug war and take action. “I like the conference ? it’s cool to be here,” Jason told Cannabis Culture.
They were among many who attended a spirited debate between Law Enforcement Against Prohibition member and former Cook County prosecutor Jim Gierach and Dr Mark Kleiman of the University of California at Los Angeles. The topic was “Varied Visions of Sensible Drug Policy.”
“I think Phillip Morris should sell marijuana,” asserted Kleiman. “If you’re in the business of addicting, you’re in the business of addicting.” He also pointed out why violence is associated with the drug war: “When [your business is]the most valuable commodity on earth, you need guns.”
Jim Gierach made a similar observation: “The reason the drug war has lasted this long is that the good guys are on the drug war gravy train just like the bad guys. Both of their well-being relies on prohibition. Every drug dealer is in favor of drug prohibition; every cop is in favor of drug prohibition. You have to ask, why does the Partnership for a Drug Free America support prohibition?”
Kleiman had other observations, attacking the popular drug policy reformer strategy of referring to alcohol policy. “What makes alcohol policy seductive to other drugs? There are different drugs, so we need different policies.”
The debates were thought provoking and invigorating, but according to SSDP Outreach Coordinator and conference planner Abby Bair, “Most impressive is the caliber of students attending. I was very impressed by the command they have of the issues.”
Perhaps that’s because the young people of the SSDP are respected and encouraged. SSDP founding member Kris Lotlikar observed, “There is no such thing as youth discrimination in the SSDP.” And many have grown up in the group, becoming Rhodes Scholars, attorneys, and players in the recent presidential campaign and on Capitol Hill.
Swerdlow noted the group’s two greatest strengths: “People power and the voices with which we speak.” The members of SSDP are proudly reclaiming the language used against them.
“[Drug prohibitionists] are trying to put the moral burden on us,” Swerdlow remarked. “We need to turn it around. When someone says, ‘How can you live with yourself knowing drugs are bad?’ we need to say, ‘How can you live with yourself knowing the cost of this unjust war? How many people are you willing to sacrifice for the drug war when it is clear it is an unwinnable war?'”
If these powerful people have their way, the war will end, and people ? not prohibition ? will finally be victorious.
? Students for Sensible Drug Policy: ssdp.org