In Memoriam: A Tribute to Aaron David Wilson, 1971-2006

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Drug policy reform has lost a long-time friend and colleague. Aaron Wilson, a member of DRCNet's Board of Directors from 1997-1998, passed away unexpectedly of heart failure in his sleep on December 21 of last year, in his home in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Aaron Wilson (courtesy
Though Aaron's professional work the last several years was in labor health and safety activism, his work opposing the drug war would make up an impressive resume on its own. From 1995-2000 he was staff and then associate director of the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information in New York, where among other works he spearheaded a series of public forums, authored a major experts directory on drug policy for media, helped to set up the Voluntary Committee Lawyers organization and dealt with media himself. With Tom Leighton and Vinnie Kane (a firefighter who later lost his life on 9/11), Aaron co-founded the Marijuana Reform Party of New York, an organization that garnered extensive publicity and twice placed Leighton on the gubernatorial ballot. At Columbia University, where he earned two masters degrees, Aaron co-founded the Columbia University NORML chapter with Wayne Jebian and organized with the Faculty Senate to bring about a much-needed scrutinizing by the university of academic standards at Joe Califano's affiliated Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

Aaron was a major figure in the early development of the student drug policy reform movement, work that was close to his heart. During his undergraduate years at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he co-founded, with close friends Brian Julin and Kai Price, the U-Mass Cannabis Reform Coalition (UMACRC), now the oldest continuously running campus drug policy reform group. I remember during DRCNet's early days reading about UMACRC's energetic work, including an action in which members brought small, yellow-colored jars of liquid to a job fair, where they delivered them to the booths of companies that do employee drug testing. Aaron told me the group reached a membership of several hundred people during his time there. A personal encounter verified for me later that UMACRC's achievements were indeed more than hype, when I met a cousin for the first time who went to college during the same years as Aaron and I told him what kind of work I do. My cousin told me that he understood legalization because he had gone to U-Mass and the issue had a high profile on the campus. Later, Aaron served as the National Campus Coordinator for NORML, and in 1999 he conceived and organized an important early student drug policy organizing conference.

Those are a few facts about Aaron's work, but facts of that sort alone fall short of really telling a person's story or what he meant to those around him. One of the most striking things about Aaron was how in his short life he managed to straddle such different worlds and ideas. Aaron was a radical with a Rasta cap, who was respected by doctors and lawyers. He was a gruff anti-authoritarian, who might lecture you on the importance of hard work and traditional morals. At a time when the drug policy reform movement was more cautious than before or since about anything that could be taken as "pro-drug," Aaron was an advocate for "pot power." I think he understood the humor these contrasts sometimes had. Speaking of hard work, I never understood how he would juggle a full-time job, school and multiple activist projects, and expect to come through on all of them, but I saw the results.

Aaron and I lost touch a long time ago, and I regret the lost years. I have occasionally heard, and since his passing read more about, his deeds over the years. He was Executive Director of the Western Massachusetts Committee for Occupational Safety and Health in Springfield, where he trained union members in improving health and safety conditions and helped families of deceased Chapman Valve, Inc. employees get compensation for uranium ore exposure. He helped put together the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, a collaboration between labor and environmental groups promoting safer alternatives to toxic chemical use. He was a member of the Amherst Town Meeting and the Hampshire County United Way Board of Directors, was Board Chairman of the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, and was a delegate for now-Gov. Deval Patrick. His work in labor earned him much-deserved recognition, including the Micah Award for Springfield Community Activist of the Year and the Unsung Hero Award, and others.

I would like to have been there to celebrate some of those moments with him. But for me the old memories will have to be enough -- drives to Charlotte and Atlanta for local harm reduction conferences, attending the big New Orleans conference together, enjoying music and cable TV in Washington Heights, laughing whenever we'd meet one of the people we had only before known through the Internet. Some of my best friendships and most valuable professional relationships are owed to introductions Aaron made, and for that I will always be grateful.

Friends of Aaron have organized a memorial service, taking place at 1:00pm on Sunday, January 28 in Amherst -- they've rented a large auditorium on the campus, and are expecting to need the space. Visit for information, to read more about him or share your own memories, or to donate to a scholarship fund established in his memory.

- David Borden

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Aaron David Wilson

35 and died of "heart failure"!?? Whaa?!
did he have a known heart condition?

borden's picture

yes, he did

Some people are born with heart problems -- I've heard of this happening before, even to young people. By all reports Aaron had had a normal day and was not "partying" before going to sleep.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

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