Even as the spring semester winds down on campuses across the country, Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapters and individual activists are relying on tried tactics as well as innovative art attacks to forward the cause of drug reform. In Wisconsin, on April 28 and 29, the University of Wisconsin-Madison SSDP chapter hosted an ambitious conference called "Illuminating Reality: Social, Intellectual, Economic and Faith-Based Approaches to Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century," drawing experts and drug reformers from around the country and SSDP activists from around the state and region. On May 1, SSDP's oldest founding chapter at the Rochester Institute of Technology held an evening forum discussing "The Drug War: Who Wins, Who Loses."
A May 4 conference at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts drew college financial aid administrators and others from around the region to hear drug reformers, financial aid experts, students affected by the HEA drug provision, Hampshire's president and Rep. Barney Frank discussion the history and ramifications of the new drug conviction-financial aid law.
But while Hampshire's SSDPers were busy networking with the higher education community, and while America's Dairyland's SSDPers were busy illuminating reality, reality was being messed with by another SSDPer in another part of peaceful Amherst. Amherst College student and SSDP member Andrew Epstein's social sculpture art class project blew minds, riled the campus and even received national media attention in the New York Times and Associated Press.
With the connivance of college administrators, workers, and the student government, Epstein unleashed the Day of No Joe on the unwitting campus. Students, staff and faculty arriving at campus coffee houses Tuesday were greeted by empty, shrouded coffee pots and signs announcing that coffee had been banned from the hallowed precincts.
"In order to curb the use of caffeine at Amherst College, the sale and distribution of coffee are no longer permitted on campus. Effective Immediately." Disgruntled caffeine users were to take their complaints to the Caffeine Control Coordinator.
Or they could avail themselves of services provided by shady black marketeers who mysteriously appeared once the substance was banned. "Hey, you need coffee?" one shady looking character asked the Times reporter. "Espresso beans, 10 cents a bean," enticed the dealer.
Epstein also held a news conference attended by a handful of anxious and confused students. He enumerated the dangers of caffeine for his bemused audience. "Is this for real?" one asked.
Well, no. It was Epstein's effort to draw attention to the hypocrisy of the drug war. "I came upon this idea of trying to recreate Prohibition by taking away a substance that's been culturally domesticated, to make people aware of their own substance abuse," he told the New York Times. People can easily ignore a painting, he said, but they notice when you remove part of their daily routine.
Epstein played it smart by couching his agitprop as art rather than activism, his art professor told the Times. "I suspect if he had come to the administration as an activist, there would have been much stronger resistance," Mr. Godfrey said. "It shows us how art has this kind of peculiar permission."
(Those who were duped at Amherst should not feel so bad. When Epstein released a fake press release detailing the coffee ban on the SSDP discussion list, more than one humor-impaired activist jumped down his throat, accusing him of betraying the principles of drug reform.)
The Madison SSDP conference was, if less spectacular, equally impressive. A new generation of student activists were introduced to each other, as well as to members of the drug reform establishment, church people involved in the struggle, well-known national figures such as keynote speaker Mike Gray, author of "Drug Crazy" and living links to Madison's vibrant drug reform history such as hometown hero Ben Masel.
The conference special sessions homed in on a broad range of drug policy issues, ranging from the war in Colombia to the drug war's impact on women, families, and people of color here in the United States, and from religious views of drug prohibition to medical marijuana.
"I was really impressed with the way the SSDP folks in Madison put this together," said DRCNet Campus Coordinator Steve Silverman. "It was informative and entertaining, and then there was the networking."
SSDP national president Shawn Heller, who addressed the conference, also came away impressed. "SSDP is picking up steam all over the country," he told DRCNet. "We're getting solid people everywhere, and this conference is just one example of what they are capable of doing."