Feature: New Reform Group Targets Colorado Campuses with Referendums to Equalize Marijuana and Alcohol Violation Penalties 4/15/2005

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Colorado college campuses, and the University of Colorado at Boulder in particular, have garnered much unwelcome publicity in recent months because of alcohol-related incidents. CU has suffered the national humiliation of its powerhouse football team chasing recruits with booze and hookers, and at least five Colorado students died of alcohol overdoses last semester. Without a doubt, alcohol is a major concern in Boulder and other Colorado campus towns.

The problem isn't limited to Colorado. According to an American Medical Association report on campus drinking, the annual toll from student alcohol abuse includes 1,400 deaths, 70,000 sexual assaults or date rapes, and half a million injuries each year. But in the eyes of university administrators and student conduct codes, marijuana is a far worse problem, one that should be treated more severely.

SAFER, or Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation, a Boulder-based nonprofit, has a different idea: Equalize the campus penalties for alcohol and marijuana infractions so students don't choose the more dangerous substance in order to avoid being punished more severely. Having begun only in January with seed money from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, SAFER has already scored one victory, with students at Colorado State University in Fort Collins last week approving a non-binding referendum urging the school to adopt parity in its alcohol and pot punishments by a margin of 56% to 44%. "Do you agree that the penalties for student marijuana use and possession should be no greater than those for student alcohol use and possession?" students were asked.

This week in Boulder, students at CU are voting on a similar referendum, and SAFER organizers are predicting an even larger margin of victory there. "Given the more liberal make-up of the student body in Boulder compared to Fort Collins).

The group held a Monday rally at the UMC Fountain on campus to urge students to support the referendum. "It is simple poor public policy to encourage students to drink by having harsher penalties for marijuana use," said CU SAFER campaign manager Vanessa Cisneros. It is time for the university to accept that marijuana is safer than alcohol, she said.

That was a message echoed by former Boulder city councilman and Boulder County Commissioner Paul Danish. "Marijuana use is less likely to cause violence and addiction," he said, pointing out that millions of crimes are fueled by alcohol each year. It is important, especially in an institution devoted to intellectual honesty and scientific inquiry, that the information given out about drugs is honest and accurate, he added.

But early indications are that CU administrators don't particularly want to hear any such message. In an interview with the student newspaper the Daily Coloradan, UC Student Union director of public relations Jessica Bralish said that even if the referendum passes, it will not prompt any action. Instead, administrators would view it as showing what students want to see happen with marijuana policy. "I don't know the official UCSU stance on it," said Bralish, "but from my perspective it seems like we'd be conflicting with the state's policy." Passage of the referendum would run counter to the university's policy she said. "Let's see what the students think and then we can act accordingly," said Bralish.

But the state's policy toward marijuana is fairly progressive -- simple possession of less than an ounce has been decriminalized, with violators facing only a summons and a maximum $100 fine. It is only in on-campus disciplinary proceedings that marijuana offenders face stiffer penalties -- including suspension for a second offense -- than alcohol offenders.

Even so, it is alcohol offenders who more frequently come to the attention of CU campus police. According to campus police Lt. Tim McGraw, last year, 304 students were either cited or arrested for alcohol offenses and another 126 arrested for DWI, while there were only 70 drug offenses, and 68 of those were for simple possession. "We don't break down the drug arrest numbers," McGraw told DRCNet, "but the overwhelming majority are for marijuana."

When asked if campus pot-smoking was a problem for police, McGraw hesitated. "It can be," he said. "It's illegal. There is a lot of usage and that can lead to problems. That's not to say that everyone who smokes becomes a heroin user, but I've never met one who didn't start with marijuana." McGraw also pointed to anecdotal accounts of drug rip-offs and to finding marijuana at hard drug busts.

"Current disciplinary policies send the wrong message," said Tyvert. "Telling students over 21 that they can get thrown out of school for smoking marijuana but not for drinking just fuels the culture of alcohol, and CU is already like a poster child for Coors Brewing. And telling students under 21 that they will face more severe penalties for marijuana than for drinking just does the same thing. Administrators think that us winning this referendum will damage the school's image, but the sight of a drunk kid choking to death on his own vomit is not a very pleasant image either. Nobody dies from a marijuana overdose. The potentially harmful consequences of using alcohol far exceed those of marijuana," he told DRCNet.

Tyvert's and SAFER's ambitions extend beyond the Front Range of the Rockies. "This is the beginning of a national movement," he said. "Students are fed up with a system that punishes them for making a safer choice."

Meanwhile, Tyvert and SAFER have work to do back at Colorado State. "The school is very interested in not acknowledging this whole thing, but that sends a terrible message to the students," he said. "This was the first student-initiated referendum since 1995, and what is the school telling the students? You pay us to do what you want, but we're not going to listen. We will be following up at CSU to help them get over their timidity and acknowledge the will of the students and acknowledge that marijuana is safer than alcohol."

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Issue #382 -- 4/15/2005

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Editorial: A Moral Fog | Feature: Chill Over Pain Management Deepens as Leading Specialist is Sentenced to 25 Years in Prison | Feature: New Reform Group Targets Colorado Campuses with Referendums to Equalize Marijuana and Alcohol Violation Penalties | Feature: Prison Rape: The Stories Need to Be Told | DRCNet Book Review: Orgies of the Hemp Eaters | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Harm Reduction: San Francisco Ordinance Allowing Syringe Sales without Prescription Now in Effect | Meth Madness: Illinois Bill to Heighten Methamphetamine Penalties Moving | Medical Marijuana: South Dakota Initiative Getting Under Way | Africa: Ugandan Farmers Call for Marijuana Legalization | Asia: Thailand Drug War, Part III | Asia: Police in Ho Chi Minh City Detain 650 in Nightclub Drug Sweep | Asia: South Korea to Institute Treatment for Drug Offenders | Asia: Afghan Opium Eradication Campaign Off to Violent Start | Congress: How Did Your US Representative Vote on Medical Marijuana Last Year? | Alert: Please Help Students Losing Financial Aid for College Because of Drug Convictions Get Their Aid Back -- Alerts Online for the House, Senate, and Arizona and Rhode Island Legislatures | Weekly: This Week in History | Online: Audio Web Chat with Dr. Andrew Weil | Job Listing: Deputy Director of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar |

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