Saturday, December 11, 2010

Miley Cyrus and a Bong: Could this be the video that makes salvia illegal?

Move over Wikileaks. We've got Miley Cyrus with a bong. Tripping on Salvia. On camera.

Seriously folks, this could be a big deal for drug policy.

Miley Cyrus practically is America. She's adored by millions of children and adults alike. Her dad is responsible for making the mullet a temporarily acceptable haircut. And now lil' Miley has to go and break his achy, breaky, heart with another bong rip heard round the world (Michael Phelps was the first).

Why should we care? Because this is the sort of crap that American drug policy is crafted on.

Salvia divinorum is a short acting psychoactive herb. It's a member of the mint family and has been used in shaman ceremonies by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico for thousands of years. It has already been banned in a number of states but not because its use was causing significant problems. It's mostly because of high school kids tripping balls for about 5 minutes, video taping it and then posting to YouTube. Then all it takes is a tough on drugs politician to see one of those and you've got a campaign to make salvia illegal - as if the kids in these videos we're using the bong as a paperweight when they weren't legally buying salvia to pack it with. We have news for you - the bong's main use is for smoking pot and that's been illegal since 1937 but no one seems to have a hard time finding any to smoke.

Salvia's effects are not typically considered pleasant by most people. It's definitely not a party drug as the experience can be very intense and spiritual as well as very surprising for the first time user. It's sold in pure leaf forms and in extracts at various strengths. It tastes disgusting and is known for being non-toxic and non-additive. But politicians present it as a serious danger to young people everywhere.

Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Virginia have made Salvia totally illegal - some placing it under Schedule I status. Other states like Lousiana, North Carolina, Tennesse and West Virginia have made it "only legal when not intended for human consumption," essentially leaving it as a research chemical or decorative house plant. California (where Miley is during the incident), Maine and Maryland have taken a more sensible approach and placed age restrictions and laws against providing to underage persons. In Wisconsin you can possess it but you can't grow it, give it away or sell it. And there's a few more states that currently have pending legislation to ban Salvia.

Still, the federal government and DEA has yet to succeed in banning Salvia. But here's why Miley Cyrus could be their secret weapon...

It's the Len Bias effect. Len Bias was a University of Maryland basketball star who was picked up by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft. While celebrating his draft to the Celtics just two days after getting the news, he died of a cocaine overdose. The Speaker of the House at the time was Massachussets Congressman, Tip O'Neill. He was from Boston and when he saw how pissed off Celtics fans were about Bias' death, he seized the opportunity to introduce mandatory minimum sentencing through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It made Democrats look tough (apparently there once was a time when this was occasionally possible for Democrats). The new laws based sentencing on the weight and type of drug, or the presence of a firearm. It created a 100-1 disparity in the sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine, a disparity that devasted African-American communities and helped to skyrocket America's prison population. It took 24 years to reform that that law with the Fair Sentencing Act which passed this year and didn't do away with the disparity but lowered it to 18:1. It would turn out that Bias didn't even die from crack cocaine, he was using powder.

Here's the thing. Unlike Len Bias, Miley Cyrus doesn't have to die to send parents and lawmakers into a frenzy over salvia. Apparently she doesn't even have to break a single law - what she did was perfectly legal (the real crime was listening to Bush). She just has to appear like she's a normal young adult having fun with her friends and that just maybe, she isn't as cookie cutter perfect as Hollywood makes her seem. This provides politicians with needed support from Americans with love and nostalgia for Hannah Montana.

It's not that the federal government hasn't tried to ban salvia yet. In 2002 the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics successfully stopped Congress from placing salvia in the Controlled Substances Act by arguing that it was inappropriate for scheduling and should be available for research. But politicians didn't have a viral video of a teen pop sensation ripping bongs of a relatively mysterious substance and laughing hysterically in their arsenal then. Almost every lawmaker attempting to outlaw salvia has used YouTube videos of teenagers smoking it as evidence of why it should be prohibited - and there are lots of videos of people smoking this stuff online. Some of them have millions of views. And some show people looking pretty silly.

In 2008 Florida state Rep. Mary Brandenburgh introduced legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Christ making simple possession of salvia a felony that could carry a 5 year prison sentence. The DEA has stated that it could be possible for Savlia users to be prosecuted under the Federal Analogues Act:
"Salvia divinorum, Salvinorin A, and Divinorin A are not listed in the Controlled Substances Act. If sold for human consumption, S. divinorum may be subject to control under the Analogue statutes because of its functional pharmacological similarities to other CI hallucinogens like THC."
-- from DEA Diversion Salvia divinorum Page - Feb 2002
However, the drug resource website Erowid states that the DEA's analysis is flawed as very little is actually known about salvia's pharmacological properties.

So here we have this drug that most people are unfamilar with, a patchwork of state laws prohibiting or restricting the drug all around the country, failed attempts by the feds to make it a Schedule I, ambigous DEA interpertations of how to prosecute people federally and a video of an American teen icon smoking it spreading virally all over the internet. To me, it's a recipe for prohibition that people like this guy are all too willing to cook up...

Former California State Assemblyman Anthony Adams tried to make salvia a Schedule I drug in 2007 but had to settle for age restrictions for purchasing and possessing it - making salvia legal for Miley Cyrus who is 18. Adams is already calling for the federal government to step in because of the Cyrus video. "It's time for state and federal governments to renew their push toward an outright ban" he told TMZ.

I think it's likely that they will. And soon.

I can see it now, "The Saving Hanna Montana from Hallucinogenic Herbs Bill of 2011."

Friday, December 10, 2010

SSDP featured in The Nation magazine

Because of SSDP's expertise in empowering young people to change harmful drug war policies, I was invited to write a feature piece in The Nation magazine's December 27, 2010 issue about how students are motivated to work for marijuana ballot measures, here's an excerpt:

"Watching these young activists voraciously consuming information about how to win an election, just days after a historic loss, was more than invigorating. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Change is coming sooner than anyone believes. And this is what it's going to look like." Read the full article here.

If you appreciate the work that we are doing, please consider making your end-of-year donation to SSDP's work today.

Ducking Obligations: More News about Violence against Children in Mexico

Children in a 2010 Juarez family development agency, from Reuters.

Unpredictable violence in Mexico continues to jeopardize a peaceful childhood. The fighting between security forces and drug trafficking organizations continues to claim the lives of children and their parents, with the former often labelled “collateral damage.”

But as reported last summer Mexican education and public safety officials stated their intention to roll out duck-and-cover trainings in the nation’s schools. The notice came hot on the heels of a spate of violence in Nayarit State, and its governor placed many schools in summer recess a week early.

Now, come winter, Reuters reports that a similar fear for children’s safety has arrived in the Pacific coastal resort of Acapulco. State officials have instituted similar duck-and-cover techniques. This time, though, instructors are not just teaching techniques in classrooms. The public safety officers are also brandishing toy guns that replicate the sound of real guns and making students respond in simulated shootouts.

While all this seems like a normal response to danger – after all, and as is well known, US children experienced such trainings during the Cold War, one wonders if raising children’s personal anxiety is actually permissible under international human rights law.

Mexico’s a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). While the first part of Article 19 of the CRC makes governments responsible for the protection of children from violence, the second part states that the government must roll out social – not individual or personal – programmes to ameliorate children’s welfare.

2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child…

Outside observers have not yet identified what the government is doing in communities such as Acapulco, Nayarit, or Ciudad Ju├írez to follow up after the violence has abated. And since Reuters reported a growing number of orphans from the violence not enrolled in social programs, it’s unclear if the Mexican government is actually attempting to ameliorate the plight of children or just ducking international and domestic obligations.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

SSDP responds to "Operation Ivy League" drug arrests at Columbia University [PRESS RELEASE]

CONTACT: Stacia Cosner, SSDP Outreach Director - 410-299-3433 or
Katharine Celentano, Columbia University SSDP - 914-420-2525 or

NYPD Charges 5 Columbia University students in “Operation Ivy League”
SSDP: Arrests Will Not Reduce Drug Use, But Will Ruin Students’ Lives

NEW YORK, NY. – An aggressive NYPD raid of the students’ school residences was conducted Tuesday morning with students reporting dozens of police cars, dogs, and battering rams surrounding the fraternity houses some of the students were affiliated with. Five students were arrested & charged with drug distribution charges, but one student group on campus says the drug bust is unlikely to have any effect on drug use or availability at the Ivy League school.

“The real problems related to drug use that desperately need to be addressed, such as youth use and addiction, take a backseat to enforcing prohibition”, said Katharine Celentano, a student leader of the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at Columbia. “We certainly do not condone the illegal activities of the students who were arrested, but the reality is that drugs are still here, and this is a problem we can't arrest our way out of."

Stacia Cosner, a national staff member with SSDP adds "such pervasive drug war strategies like those employed Tuesday waste police resources and tax payer dollars and have no clear effect on drug use or availability and could actually make drug problems worse for students who now face scarring experiences within the criminal justice system and enormous barriers to education and career opportunities.” Cosner adds, “and the once promising trajectory for these five young lives with great potential, as Ivy League graduates will be thwarted by these dramatically negative results of a drug conviction.”

Celentano says “continuing such draconian policies will keep drug law violations strictly in the hands of criminal justice, while the public health aspect of drug use is left unaddressed.” She explains, “as long as police resources are being used to enforce strict drug laws, while being diverted from protecting victims from violent crime -- our campus community will continue to bear the social and economic consequences of these realities.”

SSDP emphasizes that mitigating harms associated with campus drug use using the iron fist of law enforcement is not the answer to the question of how to address youth drug use.

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Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities, but who also know that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society. SSDP mobilizes and empowers young people to participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies, particularly those that directly harm students and youth.

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Chapter Leader of the Week: Tom Zocolo, Kent State University

Tom at the 2010 SSDP Conference
in San Francisco
Name: Tom Zocolo
Chapter: Kent State University
Position: President

What was your most exciting experience with SSDP this year? 
Hands down, the Midwestern conference was the most exciting thing to happen both personally and for our chapter at Kent. It was really a monumental planning effort that was well rewarded with both attendance and excitement from the SSDP community at large.

What issues are important for the Kent State SSDP chapter?

Right now our chapter is working towards getting a decrim bill on the  2011 ballot in Kent and other Ohio cities. We're working towards this both for the benefit and protection that such a measures will afford, and as part of a larger effort to encourage public discourse about marijuana legislation that will hopefully lead to Ohio being a medical marijuana state in 2012.  

Do you have any events planned for the this semester? 

Our chapter is planning on holding a music festival  during the spring semester entitled Folk the Drug War Fest that we will use as a platform for outreach about issues such as medical marijuana, harm reduction, and crack/cocaine disparity sentencing.

What do you like best about being part of SSDP?

 I like being a part of ssdp because there is such a tremendous amount of energy and vitality in the movement. It is refreshing to see a large group of my peers who are interested in correcting blatant civil injustice and dismantling one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian political devices in the world. 

Do you have any advice for other chapter leaders? 

My advice for other chapter leaders: Learn to play the game. Learn how to work the bureaucracy both inside your school and within your community. We are trying to rewrite the way this monster operates and we aren't going to do it with rocks and spears. We need to be refined, professional, composed, and intelligent. We need to be inside of the system and outside of the system at the same time. If you think this sort of philosophy constitutes "selling out" you're misguided.

You need to be bigger than your dreadlocks and tie-dye. You need to be bigger than your suit jacket and your letterhead. Otherwise, you're a slave to something - whether it's the system or your anti-establishment worldview. I can submit this advice only as a humble aspirant to the ideal I put before you. But it is my most sincere hope and, I believe, the key to our collective success that we strive toward this end together.

Northern Illinois University Student Group Denied 
Recognition for Views on Drug Policy (Press Release)

CONTACT: Jonathan Perri, SSDP Associate Director – (401) 265-9445 or

Erik Haslinger, NIU SSDP Publicity Chair – (815) 575-9420

Northern Illinois University Student Group Denied 
Recognition for Views on Drug Policy

Students for Sensible Drug Policy claim the NIU Student Association Senate violated their First Amendment Rights.   

DEKALB, Ill. – The Northern Illinois University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy have been denied recognition as an official student organization for the second time after the group refused to classify itself as a political group and asked to be considered a social justice advocacy group. The decision means the group cannot meet on campus, post flyers or apply for funding. However, groups involved in similar advocacy work but on different issues, including anti-abortion groups, are eligible to receive funding.

“It’s clear that the NIU Student Association Senate is incapable of fairly imposing it’s policies on student groups and after speaking with lawyers and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), we believe that the NIU Student Association Senate is in violation of the First Amendment,” explained Jonathan Perri, Associate Director at SSDP. “Unfortunately, it also seems that some members of the Senate are simply opposed to SSDP’s mission to promote an open and rational discussion about alternatives to current drug policies, including marijuana legalization, and that this may be the basis for their decision.”

FIRE and SSDP believe that the Senate has specifically violated all five of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Perri explained that it is uncommon for SSDP to have such difficulty with becoming an official group. “We have chapters on almost 150 campuses around the country and have been active for 12 years. This is the first time I’ve seen such blatant unfairness from a student government and we ask that NIU President John G. Peters immediately intervene and protect NIU student rights.”

SSDP hopes to work with NIU administrators to ensure that student speech and rights are protected for all groups on campus. A petition hosted at has been created, asking NIU President Peters to take action.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities, but who also know that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society. SSDP mobilizes and empowers young people to participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies, particularly those that directly harm students and youth.
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