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Anaheim Conference Reinvigorates Battered Reformers

What could have been an extended wake for a drug reform movement badly chastened by the November 5 election results instead became an occasion for reinvigoration as activists gathered at Marijuna Policy Project's conference in Anaheim, CA.
 
 
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What could have been an extended wake for a drug reform movement badly chastened by the November 5 election results instead became an occasion for reinvigoration as students and older drug reform activists gathered by the hundreds for the joint Marijuana Policy Project/Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in Anaheim last weekend. The three-day event featured dozens of panels and workshops on topics ranging from activist basics to medical marijuana to conservatives in the reform movement to the methods of government propaganda and much more.

In the sometimes surreal surroundings of the Anaheim Hilton, a huge tourist complex next door to Disneyland that resembles Castle Wolfenstein in its labyrinthine layout and was filled at different points with mouse ear-wearing kiddie tourists and their bedraggled parents, soldiers in full dress uniform attending a Marine Ball, and a horde of Hindu health care workers, more than 300 students from 52 SSDP chapters and a like number of other reformers came together to examine and then bury the past before moving on to future battles.

"I think the smartest thing we ever did was to schedule this conference right after election day, said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "I was afraid people would be moping and I would be crying and drooling in the corner after we just lost the biggest election of our lives at MPP, but instead the conference really served to pump people up," he told DRCNet. "The reform movement had just suffered its worst defeat in a decade, but people were talking about how they want to move forward in their states. After this conference, I feel better about the prospects for reform than I have in a very long time."

Panel after panel echoed Kampia's point. In the session on the campaign to repeal the Higher Education Act drug provision, DRCNet's David Borden joined Drug Policy Alliance attorney Judith Appel, North Carolina student activist Ian Mance and HEA victim Marisa Garcia, among others, to explain the progress made so far and the path to eventual victory. In the session on California's medical marijuana fight, compassion club operators Jeff Jones and Scott Imler joined patient/grower Judy Osburn and Americans for Safe Access's Steph Sherer to outline the battle and the offensive/defensive strategies to protect the state's patients and caregivers. In the session on running local initiatives, Boston attorney Michael Cutler and Seattle initiative organizer Dominic Holden, among others, discussed the nuts and bolts of that grassroots organizing tool. And that was just part of Friday afternoon.

Marijuana wasn't the only medical topic on the agenda, and medical marijuana researchers Donald Abrams and Ethan Russo weren't the only doctors in the house. At a Friday evening panel on "Physician Involvement in Drug Policy Reform," attendees heard from former US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, international cannabis control expert Dr. David Hadorn, and were also introduced to Dr. Frank Fisher, the pain clinic practioner now suffering an extended case of drug war persecution in Northern California ( http://www.drcnet.org/wol/258.html#frankfisher).

"The conference was amazing!" enthused Steve Silverman of Flex Your Rights ( http://www.flexyourrights.org), whose transformation into Officer Friendly in his presentation on dealing with police encounters scared, amused and informed attendees. "There was so much going on, I felt like a mosquito at a nudist colony. We really owe a debt of gratitude to MPP and SSDP for giving us an opportunity to introduce the students to Officer Friendly," he told DRCNet. "We really got the word out to students and others about how to exercise your rights during a police stop. By the way," Silverman added, "there are rumors that Officer Friendly will be making an appearance at Brown University on November 19. As long as everyone cooperates with the officer, everything should go smoothly and no one should get hurt."

For Darrell Rogers, SSDP's national outreach coordinator -- the harried young man in a suit with a cell phone permanently attached to his ear -- the conference was even better than hoped for. "It exceeded all our expectations," he told DRCNet. "Seeing the students all in sync and organized so well made my day. Sometimes all you have to do is put them together in the same room and the results will be explosive," he said. "And this conference really bridged the gap between student activism and the larger movement. Students had a chance to meet leading drug reformers face to face, and they could see that there are drug reform careers after college and a lot of support for people who want to do this work."

But it wasn't only the youth and those with vested interests in the conference's success that saw it as an important event. Movement luminaries including the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation's Eric Sterling, and Common Sense for Drug Policy's Kevin Zeese all voted with their feet, and their presence allowed for healthy intermingling of the old and the new in drug reform.

"It was a brilliant idea to combine these conferences," said Sterling. "The students were equal partners across the board, and their participation was valued and validated in a way I've never seen at any other drug policy conference I've attended. The students contributed positive energy to every aspect of the conference," he told DRCNet. "We all felt a little down when we arrived because of the elections, but the conference was a tremendously energizing event. We had hoped beforehand that it would have a celebratory quality after the elections -- the results, however, precluded that -- but it ended up having an extremely powerful motivating quality for everyone who attended."

Common Sense for Drug Policy's Doug McVay seconded that notion. "Two thumbs up for the organizers," he told DRCNet. "The panels were great, the networking was awesome, people were very diligent, and there was a lot of good nuts and bolts stuff for everybody."

It wasn't all talking, listening and taking notes. Each evening, the Hilton's vast corridors saw constant traffic by itinerant bands of conference-goers traveling from room to room seeking the next party. And Saturday's luncheon featured a rousing address by movie producer Aaron Russo ("Trading Places" and "The Rose"). Russo had the audience whooping, laughing, and applauding in a speech that was one part stand-up comedy and two parts angry political discourse.

"Well, as you know, I'm here to talk about that terrible, terrible drug known as marijuana," he said, adding that many Hollywood celebrities toked up but avoided coming out for fear of losing work. "Our laws were meant to protect us," Russo said, turning grim. "But I have friends who have been abused, jailed and exploited by our government and marginalized in our society by these laws."

And he attacked California Gov. Gray Davis, who has been less than enthusiastic about supporting the state's legal medical marijuana patients, providers and caregivers in the face of the ongoing federal assault. Perhaps Davis should be subject to a recall campaign, Russo suggested, drawing loud cheers.

Later that night, students of the psychedelic experience whose appetites had been whetted by a session on "Cognitive Liberties" featuring inner freedom fighter Richard Glen Boire of the Center for Cognitive Liberties and ecstasy researcher Dr. Charles Grob, participated in a self-selecting take home assignment. The youthful psychonauts and their mentors -- one wearing tie-dyed socks -- took over a room inside one of the hotel bars for a midnight session of candlelight, meditative music, and softly-spoken incantations and recollections of psychedelic and other mind experiences. As the youth trooped by clutching pillows, headed for what appeared do be some sort of millennial-style be-in, bewildered bar patrons were no more bemused than some of the older conference attendees.

Check out pictures from the conference online at http://www.ssdp.org/SSDP_ROOT/18_SSDP_Gallery/Galleries/ssdp02/.