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.

12 NV Students Suspended for Pro Legalization Signs

Last week, 12 students at Carson Valley Middle School in northern Nevada were suspended after putting up signs advocating for the legalization of marijuana.
Carson Valley Middle School Principal Robert Been said the signs, including ones reading "Legalize Weed" and "Free the Weed," violated a policy requiring all signs to be approved by staff before being displayed.

The group hung nearly 30 signs at the Gardnerville school, about 50 miles south of Reno, after three classmates were taken into custody on suspicion of smoking marijuana next to campus on Nov. 9. Most signs urged authorities to "free" the trio.
This makes me wonder, if the students had put up anti-legalization signs without having them approved first, would they still have been suspended? I'm willing to bet the answer to that question is no.

This case is similar to Morse v. Fredrick, also known as the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case that went all the way to the supreme court. SSDP filed an amicus brief in that case and in the end, it was ruled that students cannot be punished for practicing free speech concerning drug policies at school, including marijuana legalization,  but can be for encouraging the use of drugs.
Thankfully the Supreme Court agreed with the arguments SSDP set forth in our brief, limiting punishable speech to that which expressly promotes drug use.  In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts states: “[T]his is plainly not a case about political debate over the criminalization of drug use or possession.”  In a concurring opinion, Justices Alito and Kennedy joined with the majority, with the understanding that the ruling “provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue, including speech on issues such as ‘the wisdom of the war on drugs or of legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.”
I think the administrators at Carson Valley Middle School need to play Bong Hits for Jesus - The Game!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter Leader of the Week: Angela Shen, UCSD

Name: Angela Shen
Chapter: University of California, San Diego
Position: President

What was your experience working on the Prop 19 campaign like?  

Working on the Prop 19 campaign was definitely an interesting experience. Prior to this quarter, our SSDP chapter was just a humble gathering of a few like-minded individuals. We saw Prop 19 as a chance to really expand our organization and get our name out there, so we poured pretty much all of our free time into making this possible. Weekly meetings and events, tabling on campus every day - running a campaign is exhausting! But at the same time, it was definitely fun. 
We held a bake sale to raise money, got some amazing speakers to come through, and Dr. Bronner's Firetruck came to our campus twice. How can anything that involves talking about marijuana legalization and handing out stickers that say "Yes We Cannabis" not be fun? In the end, we did get our name out there and created some great relationships with other student organizations like Young Americans for Liberty, who brought famous LEAP speaker Judge Jim Gray to our school and graciously put our organization as a co-sponsor. 
Even though the Prop didn't pass, I feel optimistic for 2012. 3.4 million people voted for it - if we all convinced just one other person to vote for legalization in 2012, we'll win in a landslide!

What issues are important for your chapter? 
Real drug education and harm reduction are issues that our chapter is interested in addressing in the future.

Do you have any events planned for the this semester? 

We have a radio show at the on campus station called "Higher Education with SSDP."  Weekly installments where we focus on the effects of different drugs (and play appropriate music) is an idea that we've been tossing around and will probably implement next quarter. 
Collaborations with other student organizations are definitely going to happen as well. 

What do you like best about being part of SSDP? 

The fact that any student can start a chapter and make real, tangible changes about drug policy - something that so urgently needs to be addressed - is so empowering! Also, I've met awesome people through this organization. SSDP seriously attracts the coolest people on campus - some of my best friends are people I met through this organization! 
No, really though. I don't care if I'm being cheesy - I heart SSDP!

Do you have any advice for other chapter leaders?

Utilize your campus' resources! If you are a registered student organization, you have power! Reach out to the press, other student organizations, and professors. Don't forget to follow up with people that you talk to. That's something that I need to work on. 
Oh and plan ahead! One thing that I wish I had done for the campaign was register more voters - I realized too late that I should have organized voter registration drives at freshman orientations and move-ins over the summer. 
And finally, delegate duties fairly and wisely - utilize everybody who said they'd help!