Student Conference Report 11/19/99

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(Steve Silverman provides a more detailed report on this month's student drug policy conference.)

On November 7, more than 215 student leaders representing 50 colleges from 22 states gathered at George Washington University for the first national conference of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) Student Leaders in Drug Policy and Justice. The students in attendance embodied a wide diversity of backgrounds and political philosophies, but all agreed on one unassailable point: The drug war has failed.

The conference was hosted by the GWU SSDP group and was sponsored by the Drug Reform Coordination Network, the Drug Policy Foundation, the NAACP, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the Balcom Group.

Kris Lotlikar, who was elected the first national director of SSDP during the conference, described the meeting's significance. "This was the first national gathering of student leaders who challenge the wisdom of drug prohibition," he told The Week Online. "We college students grew up during the 80's and are the ones whom the current drug war was supposed to protect, yet there is not a single drug-free high school in this country. We know the drug war is a failure and we came here to learn how to end it."

The plenary sessions presented an array of drug policy experts and anti-drug war activists whose testimony continuously reminded the students why they were there. Gus Smith told the story of his daughter Kemba, whose 24-year prison sentence has become a symbol of the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing. Smith discussed the disproportionate racial impact of a drug policy in which African Americans, who comprise 12% of the population and a proportional percentage of drug users, make up 35% of those arrested, 55% of those convicted and 74% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. "Prisons," Smith exclaimed, "are slave ships that don't move."

Lynn Paltrow, a long-time advocate for women's civil and reproductive rights, explained how prosecutors have conspired with hospital employees to criminally persecute poor, drug-addicted pregnant women.

These plenary sessions reinforced the inhumane consequences of the drug war in the students' minds. With that motivation the students moved to the workshop sessions where they got practical advice on topics including organizational leadership development, working with student governments, media skills and lobbying.

Saturday featured keynote speakers Ethan Nadelmann, Director of The Lindesmith Center, and Harvey Silverglate, famed civil rights and criminal defense attorney from Boston, as well as more workshops, meetings and many discussions.

Like many of the students in attendance, Brian Gralnick of The George Washington University missed his Friday classes to attend the first day of the conference.

"As I see it, I still went to class. The lectures and workshops were very intensive. And unlike my regular class time, I didn't see anyone falling asleep or goofing off. Everyone who was there wants to be here and we we're all paying serious attention because we've got a lot of work to do. The students are asking a ton of questions. It's all very interactive."

Sara Frank, who drove up the coast for two days with three of her classmates from Louisiana State University, recalls the tone of the weekend as a sense of impending change. "I just can't fully explain the atmosphere of the conference. I remember the constant feeling of chills running up and down my spine. It's like knowing that there is a big storm creeping up on the horizon and we, the students, are the ones who are at the center of it."

Eric Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, who spoke at the conference, also sees the nascent student movement in drug policy as potentially earth-rattling. "The pressure to change drug policy is building like the pressure of a geological fault. Like an earthquake, nobody can predict the exact moment when the fault will crack, but one can confidently predict that within so many years it will crack. As with an earthquake, there will be a moment -- a flashpoint where the pressure snaps."

(Find our more about Students for Sensible Drug Policy at http://www.ssdp.org on the web.)

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