The Future of Drug Reform Is Bright

The Future of Drug Reform Is Bright

The Students for a Sensible Drug Policy conference in San Francisco was a major demonstration of youthful, activist energy to change the drug paradigm.
Published March 22, 2010 on Alternet

By Fred Gardner

In mid-March, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy organized a conference attended by 470 campus activists in San Francisco to network, strategize, party and share updates on the War on Drugs and the widening range of youth resistance efforts.

SSDP was founded in 1998 in response to a provision in the Higher Education Act that cut off loans and grants to students with drug convictions–even misdemeanors dating back to high school. Some 200,000 students have lost their financial aid in the years since. In 2007 SSDP pushed Congress to limit the Act’s applicability to students whose convictions occurred after they sought financial aid.

“Now our effort,” says SSDP acting executive director Matt Palevsky, “is to limit [applicability of] the Act to students convicted of felonies.”

SSDP now has chapters on almost 200 campuses and is receiving 40 inquiries a month from students interested in starting chapters at their schools. There are 10 overseas chapters and this year’s conference –which was billed as “international”–included speakers from the UK, Canada, Nigeria, Colombia and the Mexican border (El Paso, Texas). A satellite meeting held simultaneously in Lagos, Nigeria, drew 70 students from universities, teachers’ colleges and high schools. (A planned video feed of select panels from S.F. was canceled due to technical problems.)

Friday, March 12, the first day of the SSDP meeting was devoted to field trips to outposts of the burgeoning medical cannabis industry in the East Bay. A steady rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of students touring Oaksterdam University, the Blue Sky Coffeeshop and Harborside Health Center. “Most of these students were from states like New York and Florida, and had never seen a pound of trimmed buds, let alone a dispensary,” says Harborside’s purchasing agent, Rick Pfrommer. “We showed them how we evaluate cannabis brought to us by growers — the bioassay, how we check for mold by breaking open the buds We gave them a look through the 30x microscope The typical response was ‘Awesome!’ Or, ‘If only we had a place like this in Gainesville!'”

The conference proper was held on Saturday and Sunday at Fort Mason. The rain had left the skies a clean, deep blue and sailboats bobbed on the sparkling bay. You might say the panels and workshops literally and figuratively covered the waterfront. Saturday morning, for example, SSDPers could choose between three panels: “What do model marijuana dispensaries look like?” featuring the owners of four thriving enterprises; “Could psychedelics become accepted medicine?” with updates on studies of MDMA and psylocibin; and “How does local and state drug policy reform work?” which covered the nuts and bolts of organizing a ballot initiative.

The psychedelics session drew a standing-room-only crowd and continued on through the lunch break. Panelists from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) presented evidence that psylocibin and MDMA might help terminally ill patients shift their focus from fear of death to making the most of their remaining time. The students’ questions, however, focused more on their own use.

“Are psychedelics back?” I naively asked Rick Doblin of MAPS. “If you’re talking about college campuses,” he said, “Psychedelics never left.”

Doblin, 56, has come to appreciate the current generation’s approach to reform. “When I first became interested in LSD in 1971,” he says, “the attitude was change the system. Immediately. By any means necessary. Knock down the walls. There was tremendous anger because change wasn’t occurring fast enough. Nowadays there’s an understanding that political change takes time and work. You have to get involved with the committee that makes the rules on your campus and if you don’t get the change you wanted today, you keep trying tomorrow.”

Doblin has been a paragon of patience in his attempt to help Lyle Craker, a UMass Amherst professor of botany, win federal approval to grow cannabis for FDA-approved research. In Doblin’s second talk at the SSDP meeting he said he had some bad news concerning the Craker case. Craker first applied in 2001 for a DEA license and has gotten the runaround ever since. In the last week of George W. Bush’s reign, Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart rejected Craker’s application. A motion to reconsider kept the case alive until Barack Obama could pick a new DEA administrator. After a year in office Obama nominated Michele Leonhart.

“They had every reason not to reappoint her,” Doblin said. “Rachel Maddow revealed on TV that Leonhart spent $123,000 on a charter flight to Colombia when the DEA has its own fleet of 100 planes. Leonhart has been involved with informants who were known liars. We’d heard rumors that the administration was going to bring in somebody from outside to head DEA, but no, the status quo is going to be upheld. It’s another sop to the right.”

“Granting Craker’s DEA application would not cost a penny of government money. It would be completely consistent with their campaign rhethoric and with their stated approach of science over politics. It’s something the president could do with a stroke of the pen, immediately. And it would be so much easier and less of a step than ordering the DEA not to conduct raids in the medical marijuana states!” Doblin has heard that “there’s fierce resistance at the Drug Czar’s office” to granting Craker’s application, and that Leonhart is being retained “because [Attorney General Eric] Holder likes her.”

MAPS will work with lobbyists from the Drug Policy Alliance, Americans for Safe Access and the Marijuana Policy Project to oppose Leonhart’s nomination. Maybe senators Arlen Specter and Richard Durbin will agree to ask her questions about her approach to medical marijuana. Doblin didn’t sound optimistic. He noted that the government’s recalcitrance had made Lyle Craker, an apolitical plant scientist Doblin recruited a decade ago, “much more dedicated to growing marijuana for medical research.”

The relative calm and patience of SSDP activists was evident in the two “campus change” workshops, where students discussed efforts to get small, finite reforms enacted at their schools. Many are working to implement “good Samaritan policies” establishing a student who calls the authorities to report an overdose will not trigger punishment for those who made the call or the student in need of emergency help.

A typical reform measure is the one being planned by students at the University of Michigan to get the state’s newly enacted medical marijuana law acknowledged in the school’s policy manuals. “Every two years the university reexamines its alcohol and other drug policy,” explained Francesca Bardinelli, who heads the SSDP chapter at Michigan. “As of now it doesn’t refer to medical cannabis whatsoever. So that’s kind of our first step –to get it explicitly written down that medical cannabis is legal in the state. It would be in the administration’s interests, too, to have a clear policy.”

I asked whether they were going to push for Student Health Services to issue cannabis recommendations. “That would be difficult for a university doctor,” Bardinelli said. “There would fear of federal intervention.” She personified the practicality of what Palevsky called “DARE generation activists.”

Fred Gardner is the editor of O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group.

This article discusses the recent Students for a Sensible Drug Policy conference in San Francisco. This landmark event was attended by over 470 campus activists seeking to network, strategize, party and share updates on the War on Drugs and the widening range of youth resistance efforts.