Talkin' About the New Generation: SSDP Goes to Washington

The latest generation of drug reformers came together in Washington, DC, over the weekend as more than 250 student drug policy activists affiliated with Students for Sensible Drug Policy held their third annual conference in the nation's capital. While the group was formed because of broad student concerns about the anti-drug provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA), decisions taken over the weekend in Washington will serve to broaden the group's focus.

According to SSDP president Shawn Heller, the group voted over the weekend to continue its focus on the HEA reform campaign, but also decided to put three new items on SSDP's agenda. "In addition to the HEA campaign, we are also going to focus on replacing campus zero tolerance policies with harm reduction and drug education approaches, on defeating Plan Colombia, and on opposing drug testing, both on campus and on the job," Heller explained.

"Ralph Nader, who urged students to have stamina and resiliency in what could be a long, hard battle. "We need to develop new words and new language to describe what's happening," said Nader. "Can you say institutionalized insanity?"

SSDP is also moving ahead with a Week of Action at the end of this month and Hemp Day of Action to strengthen opposition to the DEA's ban on foods containing hemp products, said Heller. "The Week of Action will be a coordinated effort at campuses across the country focusing on all of our core issues, and will have a culminating event, probably focused on the victims of the HEA anti-drug provision," he said.

The two-day weekend conference at George Washington University in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood featured an array of speakers, workshops, and other events. American Indian activist and libertarian candidate for governor of New Mexico Russell Means gave a rousing keynote address linking the war on drugs to myriad other social problems and arguing that fundamental social change is both necessary and urgent. Means professed to be strongly moved by the new wave of student activists. "This conference has touched my heart," he said at a Saturday night dinner.

And, demonstrating that interest in drug policy reform transcends traditional ideological lines, the conference's other big attraction was Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who urged students to have stamina and resiliency in what could be a long, hard battle. "We need to develop new words and new language to describe what's happening," said Nader. "Can you say institutionalized insanity?"

"It was incredibly cool that Nader came," said SSDP member Jennifer Landis. "He lends legitimacy to the movement." He also drew a crowd. According to Heller, some 500 people paid $5 (student) or $10 (general admission) to hear Nader's address at the downtown Marriott Hotel.

Student activists from around the country also had the opportunity to listen to and interact with some of the movement's leaders. DRCNet's David Borden told the students that the wide diversity of issues that bring people to drug policy are a strength as well as a dilemma. "The more invested we become in partial reform efforts, the closer those efforts come to actually succeeding, the greater the pressure to de-emphasize or even deny our core belief [that prohibition needs to end] that brought many of us into this issue." Borden cited organizations outside of the drug policy reform movement -- such as the ACLU, National Review magazine and the Cato Institute -- that have superior positions on drug policy reform than many drug reform groups.

The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation's Eric Sterling brought a different emphasis to his address. "We need Congress to change the drug laws," said Sterling. "We have to change our politics and get real," he added. "We need to convince powerful political interests that current drug policy hurts them. For the Republicans, we need to show how drug policy hurts their constituencies -- realtors, Chamber of Commerce types, and the business community. For the Democrats, we have to convince the labor unions that the war on drugs hurts working people, we have to convince teachers that it hurts kids and hurts schools," Sterling said.

Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy envisioned a drug war picket line at federal courthouses in hundreds of cities across the land and urged drug reformers to seek additional credibility by allying themselves with academics and finding cosponsors outside the reform movement. "There has to be a better way to protect our communities and families," Zeese said.
"We need Congress to change the drug laws," said Sterling. "We have to change our politics and get real," he added. "We need to convince powerful political interests that current drug policy hurts them. "

The international drug war also received some close scrutiny. "Regardless of what the US media says, the idea of drug legalization is strong in Latin America," Narco News publisher Al Giordano told the students. The odds for change may appear long, the peripatetic journalist said, "but courage with truth beats power."

Students also heard from Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation executive director Ethan Nadelmann; Mike Gray, author of Drug Crazy; Rick Doblin, whose Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies last week won FDA approval for the first therapeutic study of ecstasy use since the drug was banned in 1985; and many others.

"This was my first drug reform conference, and it was outstanding," said Abby Bair, vice-president of the Ohio University SSDP chapter in Athens, Ohio, who was elected to the group's national board of directors on Sunday. "It was really hectic, but really focused on strengthening SSDP's message," she told DRCNet. "Plus, Nader really focused on drug policy, that was great, and the media workshop I did with Adam Eidinger [Mintwood Media] will be most useful."

For Bair, the conference was powerful stuff. "It made me realize what a movement this is, it added depth to what I'm doing," she said. "It made me realize that I need to devote my time to drug policy reform for the next few years. I can't turn my back."

"This conference was much more than I expected," said Doug McVay of Common Sense for Drug Policy. "I was very impressed with this group of very sincere, very committed people who are focused on drug reform and getting the work done," he told DRCNet. "So many times at these conventions the social aspect overrides the work, but not here. The attendees were not here to play, or to play defense. They came to defeat government policy, and that was salutory for some of us older heads. The old guys saw that there really is a youth drug reform movement."

But not just youth. Fifty-eight-year-old Kendall Llewellyn of Miami is a student only in the broadest sense of the word. "My name tag says parent volunteer," he told DRCNet, adding that his son, a former leader of the Hemp Awareness Council at the University of Miami, was attending. "I've got to tell you, this was an inspiring event. The student types were doing it all. Before the dance Saturday night, 30 or 50 of them were meeting in one room to work on fundraising issues. Their spirit is so revolutionary -- some drew a parallel with Students for a Democratic Society back in the '60s," said Llewellyn.

"I'm going to suggest that we create Parents for Sensible Drug Policy," Llewellyn said. "It could start off as something as simple as me paying for a domain name, putting up a web site and saying 'if you think the drug policy we've given our kids makes sense, exit now. If you believe otherwise, please follow the link to SSDP.' But it could grow from there," he mused.

In the meantime, the self-styled "D.A.R.E. Generation" of drug policy reformers will continue to speak out on the campuses and beyond.

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