Students for a Sensible Drug Policy conference signifies the times that are a changin’

Washington D.C.: Last week’s biannual Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) conference attracted activists from across America – and a few internationals – eager for a more humane and reality-based drug policy.

After California legalized cannabis for medical use in 1996, 23 states have followed in their footstep. In 2012, Washington and Colorado historically voted for legalizing recreational marijuana use. This midterm election, November fourth, chances are that another milestone in curbing the government’s war on drugs will be reached. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and D.C. may legalize marijuana, and Floridians will vote on medical marijuana. All which provided a noticeable contextual inspiration for this year’s conference. 

The fruit of these efforts come as a result of the devoted groundwork of SSP among many other organizations advocating for drug reform. Betty Aldworth, SSDP leader, highlighted this progress when she presented Earl Blumenauer, the Congressman from Oregon’s 3rd district, as introductory Keynote speaker. A few years ago Congressmen would not appear at events like these for fear of electoral repercussions.

Blumenauer, who spoke at the SSDP conference on his way to campaign for Oregon’s Measure 91, has done an outstanding effort informing fellow Congress members on the intolerable consequences of marijuana prohibition. Measure 91 would legalize the possession and sale and tax marijuana in Oregon, and polls have shown that a plurality of state voters supports the initiative. In his speech, Blumenauer stated that the national cannabis ban would be history, perhaps as early as 2016, if cannabis legalization passes in Oregon and Alaska as well as in DC.

–  If our effort to legalize marijuana on the state level is unsuccessful, however, we will experience a large setback. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose, the Democratic Congressman cautioned.

The event spanned from Friday to Sunday with a Congressional lobby day Monday, which I did not attend. The comprehensive conference program included prominent speakers, panel discussions and various workshops on topics ranging from industrial hemp production, harm reduction, media relations and legal and policy issues. Session such as “Building a Legally Sustainable Cannabis Market”, “What About the Children: Families and the War on Drugs”, and “Getting the Word Out: Tips for Taking Over Campus Media” indicate the wide-ranging policy issues in the drug reform movement.

Many of the student attendees were involved in challenging drug prohibition from their home universities. According to the SSDP’s website, the group has grown to over 200 active Student Chapters, which have been highly successful in influencing campus policy and fellow students through information campaigns and speaker events, and consequently helped sway the national conversation on drugs away from unscientific dogma.

The activists’ demographic background differed greatly, and all sorts of political views and affiliations were represented at the conference. The greatest strength of the current drug legalization movement is conceivably that people with different takes on the color of the moon manage to work in mutual and constructive collaboration on reducing drug harms on users, curb an overreaching police state, and end wasteful government spending. And this will be the source of its success.

The preliminary alternative drug view came from the counterculture of the 1960s, personified with Timothy Leary’s infamous “turn on, tune in, drop out” declaration of the open-mindedness effect of hallucinogens. This is not suggesting that the stereotype of a pot-smoking hippie defined the 1960’s initial drug reform movement, but drug tolerance have conventionally been associated with anti-establishment (read; leftwing) causes.

Contemporary drug-reform initiatives, however, consist of a broader spectrum of supporters, such as former UN leader Kofi Annan, and prominent representatives from the medical community promoting the decriminalization of drugs and addressing drug use as a legitimate health issue. An equivalent anti-authoritarianism is nonetheless apparent in the mutual recognition that guns are an inefficient tool to solve social problems.

Now, libertarians have evolved as a principal and visible voice for ending the global drug war. The libertarian conference presence, including event sponsorship and info stands, featured Reason foundation, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Students for Liberty, and even the Charles Koch Institute. Koch of course has become the largest donor to the Republican Party through a network of umbrella institutions. Likewise, libertarian-leaning Republicans such as Rand Paul and Justin Amash leads the conversation for profound Congressional drug reform.

The visible surge of members of the right in the drug reform movement as well as the increased conservative acceptance for legislative reform was in fact a theme covered at the conference, with a thoughtful panel discussion entitled “The Right on drug reform: Working with new and all allies.”

The panelists, Cato institute scholar’s Tim Lynch and Kat Murti, reason foundation’s Lauren Galik, Vikrant P. Reddy at the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Ann Lee, an elderly Texan native who founded Republicans against Marijuana Prohibition, all spoke on the importance of understanding one’s audiences and using language in accordance with one’s conversationalist values when speaking with conservatives about criminal justice and drug reform.

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Panel: “The Right on drug reform: Working with new and all allies”

The advises of Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice, particularly stroke my attention for their sensibility and simplicity, “when talking to conservatives about drug reform and legalization, do not stress the vast potential for taxation”. According to Lynch, most conservatives worry the government overspends on unsuccessful programs already, thus giving them more sources of revenue would not necessarily be persuasive”. Instead emphasize the enormous cost and the waste of resources the war on drugs imposes on everyone, notably families and many local communities,” thus Lynch highlighted the absurdity of alleged small-government backers supporting wasting billions in tax payers’ dollars on a drug war that merely fuels organized crime.

–  And mindless attacks on corporations, or conspiratorial accusations that pharmaceutical and medical industry participates a hidden profiting scheme from current policies would be counterproductive… There is something about demonization of business and businesspeople that will make conservatives shut down from otherwise constructive conversations, Lych said.

The highlight of the rich conference, in my view, was SSDP co-founder Troy Dayton’s Saturday Keynote Speak. His speech was flavored with personal narratives from his road to professional advocacy, which began as a youth in the 1980s California and realizing that marijuana should be legal, a time when the issue was still somewhat taboo. Dayton told the story of his activist years coincided with legislative changes toward more humane drug policies. Dayton himself was active in a early and pivotal victory for the drug reform movement, California’s 1996 medical marijuana legalization. But when he first got involved in grassroots activism he was told that the issue was “hopeless” – marijuana will never be legal. “Now,” Dayton said to the observant crowd, “most people we encounter say it is inevitable.”

“There is a fundamental similarity between these positions, saying it is hopeless and saying it is inevitable. The latter position is also a perquisite for doing nothing, it is to declare that the outcome is out of our control. What gives me actual confidence is you. We now find ourselves in that space between hopelessness and inevitability, and it is in this space that we shape future changes.”

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