Saturday, November 27, 2010

Chapter Leader of the Week: Katharine Celentano, Columbia University


SSDP: When did you first get involved with SSDP?

Katharine: A few years ago, when I wasn't even a student! I was taking time off from school for health reasons. I'd been interested in mental health advocacy since about 6th grade, but my experiences with some self-identifying addicts inspired my interest in drug policy reform more specifically. As stigmatized as I felt for my own struggles, I realized my addict friends had it worse. When I got sick - I went to the doctor. My friends whose illnesses involved behavioral components tied to illegal substances faced incarceration. It was thus, in effect, illegal for them to be sick.

Watching this play out up close made clear to me that The Drug War was actively preventing recovery and instead inadvertently encouraging drug abuse. Several of my friends fatally overdosed or contracted blood borne disease. Too many earnestly working to get better found themselves tangled up in a criminal justice system rife with rape and violence, weighed down with criminal records which barred meaningful access to housing, education, employment, and health care.

The wheels in my head were already turning when one of my active 12-step friends with a significant amount of clean and sober time sat me down to discuss the need to legalize and regulate. He was the first person to ever use the "L" word with me in a serious way. Shortly thereafter, a knee injury left me in bed for a few months with little to do but read - and read I did.

I read everything I could find about drug policy, criminal justice, treatment strategies, mental health, addiction, and so forth, exposing me to other important reasons for a paradigm shift as well - from cancer patients without access to medical marijuana to violence at the U.S./Mexico border to the fact that - hey - not everyone who uses recreational drugs is an addict!

With the data so clearly backing up my concerns, I started to look for ways to get involved, leading me to SSDP. Not yet back in school, but still a young person, I explained my situation via the form on the website. Amber Langston, the Northeast regional outreach director at the time called me promptly - amazing! I started familiarizing myself with the movement, started working with LEAP and booking gigs for their speakers - often through SSDP chapters, attended the 2010 SSDP Conference in San Francisco (where I met Aditya Mukerjee, CU SSDP's president), and now I'm attached to an actual chapter at Columbia where I've matriculated.


SSDP: What issues are important for your chapter (Columbia University, New York, NY)?

Katharine: Recently we've focused on harm reduction, marijuana law reform, and policing practices, and we are excited to continue to respond to and work on issues relevant to our members, campus, local community, and the broader movement.

SSDP: Does Columbia SSDP have any events planned for the this semester?

Katharine: So far, we've hosted speakers from our own faculty as well as LEAP, DPA, and The Legal Aid Society, screened "10 Rules," traveled to D.C. for the Rally to Restore (Drug Policy) Sanity, phone banked for Prop 19, tabled for the Just Say Now petition and also with the Iranian Students Association on syringe exchange.

We are partnering with CUHRON (Columbia University Harm Reduction Outreach Network) and The Washington Heights CORNER Project (a local syringe exchange) to coordinate harm reduction efforts across all schools at the university as well as within the community beyond campus. We’re also hoping to hold a discussion before finals on the Four Loko fiasco. Plus, we have all sorts of (really exciting!) things in process for next semester - stay tuned!


SSDP: What do you like best about being part of SSDP?

Katharine: Students are only part of campuses for a finite amount of time. We are presented with a unique opportunity to engage students on the topic of drug policy in a serious way in the context of a scholarly community during a formative period of their lives. SSDP is on the front lines of the paradigm shift.

SSDP: Do you have any advice for other chapter leaders?

Katharine: The Drug War hurts everyone - so everyone is your base, even if they don't realize it yet. Do not limit yourself. Avoid partisanship. People get involved with drug policy reform for many reasons - always challenge yourself to think beyond the reasons that you or your members got involved. Find out what people already care about on campus, and meet them there. Try not to get too angry at those who disagree with you - people often disagree out of deep caring (coupled with misinformation).

Your opponents can become your biggest and often most powerful allies. If someone winces at your petition drive, ask them why with compassion. Maybe they've lost a family member to addiction - meet them with open arms, acknowledge their suffering, and explain why what you're doing directly addresses their pain. And my favorite piece of advice: this is about more than marijuana. Marijuana is a detail. Make sure your campus understands you know this.

Be aware of stereotypes, and then smash them! Oh, and network - on and off campus - across all disciplines. Politicians. Activists. Student leaders. Faculty. Health care providers. Patients. Business leaders. Clergy. Community organizers. Administrators. Journalists. Everyone. Invest in business cards. Present professionally.


SSDP: Anything else you'd like to add?

Katharine: I don’t use any drugs recreationally - not even alcohol. Yah, not even a sip of champagne at weddings. If you are confused by my involvement with the movement in light of this, stick around to learn more, because it sounds like you may hold stereotypes about drug policy reform(ers) as inaccurate as the ones I once held. I welcome you!

P.S. If you know anyone in the abstinence based recovery community (provider, client, 12-stepper, family member, etc.) who's supportive of reform, please get them in contact with me. I'm working on something awesome. Confidentiality will be respected.