Some 500 student drug policy reform activists flooded into San Francisco last weekend for the 11th annual Students for Sensible Drug Policy
(SSDP) national conference, "This is Your Brain on Drug Policy Reform
." In a sign of growing momentum for drug reform, this was the largest SSDP conference yet.
There couldn't have been a more inviting place for it. The San Francisco Bay area is the epicenter of marijuana and medical marijuana activism, as well as being a counterculture mecca for decades. The students did their best to take advantage of the advantageous locale.
Friday was mainly a day of tourism and networking for the student activists from around the country and the planet. Hundreds of them signed up to head across San Francisco Bay to tour Oaksterdam University and Oakland's Oaksterdam neighborhood downtown. Many then headed to the nearby Harborside Health Center, a state of the art medical marijuana dispensary. The day of medical marijuana tourism gave students at up-close look at medical marijuana as it should be done -- and as it could be done in their home states.
On Saturday, it was just like being back at college as students spent the day in numerous panels around the theme "Drug War Education." Acting SSDP executive director Matt Palevsky opened the session with optimism, challenging the students to seize the day.
El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke, Mexico session
"This is our biggest conference to date," he said. "Now we have as many chapters in California as we do in the Northeast" where the group had its genesis, he noted. "We're really a national organization now, more than 200 chapters large. The power we feel in this room is the power of a movement. And for the first time since SSDP was founded, we can really feel the wind at our backs," he said to loud applause.
Palevsky was followed by NORML policy analyst Paul Armentano, who urged students to get out and talk to people one-to-one about ending pot prohibition. "Talk to family, friends, faculties, neighbors, school advisors, people who know you, and with whom you have credibility," he advised. "Then start talking to people who can shape public opinion, and then become an opinion-shaper yourself. Become the editor of your newspaper, run for the student council, run for the city council. We want this failed drug policy to end before you fuck over another generation of young people like you fucked over our generation," Armentano said to loud applause, presumably aiming his latter remarks at prohibitionist politicians and opinion-makers.
Linking with the previous day's medical marijuana tourism, one of the Saturday panels was on what the medical marijuana movement and business looks like. With panelists including Steve DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center, Robert Jacob of Sebastopol's Peace in Medicine
, Debby Goldsberry of the Berkeley Patients Group
, and Aundre Speciale of the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley, students got a well-informed earful. The panel was also a sign of an evolving symbiotic relationship between the medical marijuana movement and SSDP. The medical marijuana community's support for SSDP was evident by its heavy participation in the conference -- both in panels and at the vendors' booths -- and it has, in turn, become a career opportunity for more than one former SSDPer.
One of the most popular panels of the day Saturday was the one on psychedelics. It was headlined by Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who described the group's work researching the therapeutic uses of ecstasy (MDMA) and fighting for the ability of researchers to grow their own marijuana. It gave attendees a good enough sense of the group's work to ensure that at least some of them will show up for MAPS' upcoming conference Psychedelic Research in the 21st Century, set for April 15 -18 just down the road from San Francisco in San Jose.
students and others wish Ethan Nadelmann a happy birthday -- also on panel: Steph Shere (ASA), Paul Armentano (NORML), Aaron Smith (MPP)
Saturday also saw panels on the Mexican drug war, what legalization could look like when it happens, and on the drug war's impact on women, communities of color, and the poor. For the SSDP activists, many of whom were attending their first national conference, Saturday was a definite eye-opener.
"It's really been exciting," said Melissa Beadle, attending her first conference as head of a brand new SSDP chapter at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "I've been learning so much."
One of the highlights of the day was the session-closing presentation by California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), the author of California's marijuana legalization bill. Ammiano is not just a serious guy, he's a seriously funny guy, and his comedic talent was on full display Saturday afternoon. Mixing earthy language and humor, the openly gay Ammiano sketched the intertwined history of gay activism, the AIDS crisis, and medical marijuana in the Bay Area, and he didn't let party loyalty get in the way of telling it like it was.
"Bill Clinton was shit on this issue," he said. "He put out that edict that doctor's couldn't prescribe it," referring to the Clinton administration's effort to try to intimidate doctors by threatening to jerk their DEA licenses to prescribe drugs if they recommended medical marijuana to patients. "That's not an adult way to deal with an issue, and it's certainly not a statesman-like way." The would-be censors lost in the Supreme Court.
Cliff Thornton of the Hartford, CT, based group Efficacy wants inner-city communities who have become dependent on the illicit economy created by drug prohibition to be indemnified from the economic effects of the job losses that will accompany legalization.
Ammiano was a bit kinder to the current White House occupant. "In terms of Obama," he said, "the messaging is good, but it's sometimes contradictory. Still, history isn't always linear. But I'm here to tell you this movement has never been stronger; we've never been on the cusp in such a pronounced way."
Mentioning the Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 initiative that will in all likelihood be on the California ballot in November, Ammiano said he was working closely with initiative organizers and that their efforts were not competitive, but complementary. He also unleashed a bit of pot humor, noting that 57 people had signed initiative petitions twice.
"You can imagine what they were doing just before that," he said before switching into a stoner voice. "Dude, let me sign this again to make sure it passes," he role-played to gales of laughter.
Regarding his bill's prospects in Sacramento, the dapper and diminutive Ammiano reported that there is a lot of sympathy, even among conservatives, but many are still afraid to say so out loud or to vote yes for the record. "If we voted in the capitol hallways, we'd be home free," he said, before engaging in a replay of dialogues he's had with other lawmakers.
"They come up to me and say, 'Man, I used to smoke that shit in college, let's tax the hell out of it.' And I'd say, 'Are you with me then?' and they'd say, 'Oh, no, man, I can't do that.'"
Ammiano also mentioned Barney Frank's federal decriminalization bill. "I guess it's a queer thing," he said, mincing mightily and pretending to swoon over Frank.
"You guys ought to get married," someone yelled from the audience to more laughter.
And then he was gone, leaving an appreciative audience reinvigorated and still laughing.
On Saturday night, SSDP announced new board members and honored well-performing chapters, then celebrated by rocking out to live music from Panda Conspiracy and Roots of Creation. On Sunday, it was up early despite the shift to Daylight Savings Time for a day of serious activist how-to panels. Then on Monday, it was back home to put the information and lessons learned to work on campuses across the country. Students departed San Francisco feeling like they were riding the crest of a reform wave, and maybe, just maybe, they were right. We'll have to check back next year.