Steve Silverman, [email protected]
On the weekend of January 13-15, more than 1,000 students from 40 states, 150 colleges, and 50 different high schools gathered in Manchester, NH to get a taste of all things political at the College and High School Convention 2000 (CC2K). The event, sponsored by an assortment of nonprofit organizations, attracted high profile pundits and presidential candidates representing a plentiful assortment of ideologies.
Arguably the most vocal and engaging group present was Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org). SSDP, whose presence at CC2K was sponsored by the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF), gathered 25 student activists for the event, representing eight colleges, some as far away as Wisconsin.
Kris Lotlikar, the 20 year-old national director of SSDP and DRCNet's campus coordinator told the Week Online, "We came to New Hampshire primarily for two reasons. First, we want to educate students about the harms of a drug war that was supposedly launched in order to protect us, but is now more likely to hurt us. Second, we are here to show candidates that they can no longer hide behind the bipartisan effort to ignore the failure of drug prohibition."
After the students arrived, there was an immediate call to action: a Thursday night protest at Londonderry High School, where Republican frontrunner Governor George W. Bush was scheduled to speak. As the students prepared, they were interviewed and filmed by a platoon of MTV reporters who later accompanied them to the event.
The students' outdoor protest yielded mixed results. A handful of aggravated policemen, accompanied by menacing looking German Shepherds, refused to let the protesters inside from the sub-zero weather and threatened them with arrest. The protestors countered by editorializing into a bullhorn and unveiling the centerpiece of the protest -- a fellow dressed in an oversized homemade paper-mache George Bush costume dancing around and chanting witticisms such as "Don't vote for the McCain, vote for the cocaine!" Hanging over the puppet's chest was a large sign reading "DRUG WAR HYPOCRITE." This unusual disturbance elicited the rancor of an equally strident crew of Bush supporters who bemoaned the protestors for unfairly disparaging their candidate.
While some braved the stinging cold, others employed more covert tactics. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) worked with CJPF and SSDP during the weekend's events. He successfully infiltrated the crowd in Londonderry by strategically placing a Bush sticker on his lapel, sitting himself towards the front-center of the room, and getting his hand in the air for the Q&A session. When picked by Bush, Tree tossed him the hot-potato question, "Governor Bush, you've been doing remarkably well in the polls and I congratulate you. It would seem that the American people don't seem to have a problem with your drug past..."
Bush immediately interrupted with a jumbled reply and never let Tree finish. "You're making an assumption, Sir. Sir, sit down, please. You're making an assumption about me, that you have no, you really don't know what you're talking about. And I don't, I don't, I don't accept that assumption. What you need to know about me, is should I swear, I'm going to bring honor and dignity to the office. That's what you need to know about me."
After the Q&A, Tree was swarmed by reporters. The next day, SSDP's activity and Tree's exchange received coverage from the local and national press, as The Union Leader, The Concord Monitor, and the Associated Press picked it up.
Satisfied, the protestors exited the Bush event and continued to a nearby library where Sen. John McCain was speaking. The well-dressed young protestors unobtrusively filed into the meeting room and got into position just as McCain began taking questions. Within minutes, SSDP members had stung McCain with three tough drug policy questions.
David Guard from CJPF asked McCain if he would reconsider his incarceration based drug policies in light of his own wife, Cindy, who successfully overcame a serious addiction to prescription narcotics without having to serve time in jail. In response, McCain tried to show that he was sympathetic to Guard's concerns. "Why are we sending our young people to old schools and new prisons?" he rhetorically asked the audience, followed by applause. "I am in favor of increased rehabilitation," he continued.
In reality, McCain's senatorial record shows a conflicting message. He has sponsored legislation, S. 423, that would prohibit any federal funding for methadone maintenance -- the only known, reliable treatment for heroin addiction -- and he also voted in favor of S.146, a bill that would reduce the amount of powder cocaine needed to trigger harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for those found possessing it.
Kristy Gomes, an intern with CJPF and president of the George Washington University SSDP chapter, challenged the candidate with a tough line of questions regarding his medical marijuana policy. McCain quoted drug czar William Bennett to justify his support for continuing medical marijuana prohibition. Gomes told The Week Online, "I'm glad that we got McCain to talk about some of the failures of prohibition, but as long as he relies on Bill Bennett for his scientific evidence, we can't hope for him to change his policies."
Friday morning began with an appearance by Reform party candidate Patrick Buchanan. SSDP students managed to shoot off three question regarding drug policy at him; he managed to awkwardly duck them all.
Soon after Buchanan's speech, the students attended an animated and informative drug policy debate between Eric Sterling, President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, and Kevin Sabet, President of a prohibitionist collaboration called International Students in Action. This forum had the highest turnout of all the policy debates.
Sterling delivered a riveting speech in which he documented the institutional corruption and widespread evils that occur from flawed national drug policy. He emphasized that "Our national drug policy is a fundamental failure."
He then addressed the young audience, "Do any of you, or did any of you, go to a drug free high school? Show of hands? No one is raising a hand -- yes, there are 2 or 3 hands, not many in a room of hundreds of students. The number one goal of the strategy is to protect kids from drugs. The 1998 Monitoring the Future survey of high school students reports that seniors tell us that heroin and marijuana -- heroin and marijuana -- have never been more accessible to them, and crack cocaine is more available now than at any time in a decade. Only someone committed to a fantasy view of the world, or a cynical and dishonest propagandist, will steadfastly claim that national anti-drug policy is working."
Sabet's attempted to counter Sterling's arguments by recounting stories of individual tragedy that resulted from misuse of illegal drugs. He then insisted that the numbers of these cases would be greatly magnified if drugs users were not persecuted criminally by the government. He was eventually compelled to admit that we could never really hope for a drug-free America.
As the debate wound down, Alan Keyes supporters filed into the conference room. Keyes lived up to expectations by delivering a speech that invoked intense reactions -- very neagative or very positive -- from the audience members. Dan Goldman, an SSDP member from University of Wisconsin at Madison, caught the attention of the candidate by asking: "Dr. Keyes, I've noticed that African-Americans are greatly under-represented both at this convention as well as on college campuses around the nation, but over-represented in prisons. Do you think this is due to the legacy of slavery, or the drug war?"
Keyes complimented the thoughtfulness of the question, and he explained that there was once a time in America's history when people were able to coexist peacefully with those same substances we now try in vain to eliminate by locking people in prisons.
Of all the candidates present, he clearly took the boldest stance against the drug war by declaring that, "We cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem." He offered that strong morals coupled with a strong religious base are much more effective than imprisonment at keeping people away from drug use.
Later that evening, the students visited a forum hosted by front running Democratic candidate Al Gore. Their caravan swung into a nearby location in town where they were met with polite resistance. The disappointed rabble rousers were told by Gore's minions that their room on the second floor was full. Furthermore, the fire marshal insisted that nobody else could be allowed entrance because of safety codes. The group lamented the fact that they had arrived too late, but decided to regroup and greet Al Gore by arriving early at his next scheduled location.
The sophisticated rowdies arrived at a high school in Salem, NH about an hour before Gore's arrival but were thwarted again by the Gore staff. It seems that they were shielding their Mr. Gore from the pressing students' potentially troubling drug policy questions. They had the wannabe intruders staked out, and gracefully kicked them out into the icy New Hampshire darkness.
The pretension that such gatherings are open to the general public quickly evaporated from the expelled visitors' heads. This Gore gathering was an invite-only affair. A-list attendees could only cross the red velvet rope if they passed a strict test for maximum dullness. The students retreated back to the hotel having learned another valuable lesson about the phoniness of presidential politics. They relaxed, socialized, and got some well-deserved sleep time.
Saturday was the final day of the conference. The remaining students sought the quiet refuge of their display table and passed out literature. Brian Gralnick of George Washington University's SSDP briefed an interested conference attendee on the injustice of a provision in the 1998 Higher Education Act. "This provision," he explained, "will deny federal financial aid to any student who gets caught in possession of even the smallest amounts of drugs. This is counterproductive because access to education is the best way to prevent a life of crime. Why should we let the government keep students from getting an education while they encourage repeat offending? And anyway, this provision is only going to hurt working class kids whose parents can't afford to pay for school if they're denied aid."
The Week Online asked Gralnick if he felt SSDP's attendance at the conference was a success. "Absolutely. We were huge and we really got the word out. One student actually came up to me and he told me that we were the loudest and most visible group there. He asked me if I thought our unorthodox antics were effective, and I said to him, 'Hey, you came up to me, and when this conference is over you and everyone here will know SSDP and what we're all about.' He agreed with me."
(Steve Silverman played the paper mache George Bush at this and other protests.)