Ten years ago, the United States of America ran at a budget surplus, George W. Bush was the Governor of Texas, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy formed in response to an amendment added to the federal government’s Higher Education Act which denied student loans and grants to anyone with a drug conviction on their record. What started out as a small group of young activists, united in their disgust at this incredibly nonsensical new policy – and connected by this new thing called the Internet – has in the last decade evolved into the fastest growing student organization in the country.
Last weekend, at the University of Maryland campus, SSDP celebrated its ten year anniversary with a national conference, a gala fiesta, and two days of meetings and panels organized around the theme: “Connecting the Dots.” Recognizing that the organization has expanded not only in size, but also in scope, an impressive list of speakers and presenters attempted to tie together all the arguments against our current, disastrous drug policy, with various panels addressing the specific harm to students, minorities, medical patients, low income neighborhoods, the judicial system, civil liberties, law enforcement, those who live in drug producing regions around the world, and even the environment we all share – not to mention the incredible waste of resources the Drug War represents in a time of global financial meltdown.
According to SSDP’s official values statement: "Students for Sensible Drug Policy neither encourages nor condemns drug use. As young people, we strive toward a just and compassionate society where drug abuse is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. We recognize that the very real harms of drug abuse are not adequately addressed by current policies and we advocate measures that would effectively help those who develop drug problems. Yet, we also believe that individuals must ultimately be allowed to make decisions for themselves as long as their actions do not infringe upon anyone else’s freedoms or safety.”
On Friday, SSDP members went to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to lobby Congress on the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack, an illogical policy that’s clearly targeted at the poor and minorities. Saturday kicked off two days of speeches and panels featuring Representative Danny Davis (D -IL), Ethan Nadelman from the Drug Policy Alliance, Allen St. Pierre from NORML, Rob Kampia from Marijuana Policy Project, Eric Sterling from the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Caren Woodson from Americans for Safe Access, Adam Wolf from the ACLU, and many more longtime drug war reformers, all of whom rightfully recognize SSDP as the future of their cause.
Perhaps the event’s highlight, at least during daylight hours, was the debate between Kris Krane, Executive Director of SSDP since 2006, and Kevin Sabet, a former speechwriter with the Drug Czar’s office.
With the ever-gracious Krane playing host, the main event proved short on shouting matches. Instead, the debate served as a polite, insightful discussion that provided a rare, side-by-side expression of two very different visions of how America should handle the issue of drug use. And while they found common ground on curtailing some of the worst abuses of our current system, Krane continuously referred to the tremendous damage done by our current, prohibitionist approach, while Sabet, when pressed to defend the underlying principle of treating drug users as criminals, stuck to his guns, then quickly changed the subject.
To their credit, the dedicated young activists in attendance held their tongues even as Mr. Sabet promoted the government’s war against medical marijuana, and claimed that despite incarcerating more people, in both raw numbers and as percentage of population, than anyone else on Earth, America still somehow “tolerates” drug sales and needs to get tougher.
If nothing else, the debate served as a poignant reminder that no matter how much the climate for drug war reform has improved with the election of a progressive new president, there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and many minds to change. With nearly 500 students in attendance, gathered together from every part of the country, plus the UK, SSDP has become an indispensable part of that effort.
Best of all, they’re having a heck of a good time doing it. At the event’s closing session, new members, departing seniors and SSDP alum all spoke not only about the positive effect of their collective activism on public policy, but also about how the group has made them part of a diverse, vibrant, compassionate community of likeminded reformers.
All those good vibes reached their peak at Saturday night’s 10th Anniversary party, featuring the mind-blowing instrumental rock of Lowell, Massachusetts’s lowercase p and a packed house of optimistic young activists with plenty to celebrate…
And don’t even get me started on the Fun Dome!