Thursday, March 31, 2011

Outstanding Alum Award: Victor Pinho

Victor became involved with drug policy when he founded the University of Maryland chapter of NORML in 2005. There he teamed up with the campus chapter of SSDP and established a reputation of solid membership, leadership, and political credibility within the drug policy reform efforts at UMD.

As an alum, he continued to stay involved. After graduating in 2006 and moving back to his home state of New Jersey, Victor took an active role in advising new chapter leaders, contributing to discussions via e-mail, organizing leadership retreats and strategy sessions, and providing general advice and support from his experiences. He also organized the first northeast regional SSDP camping trip in 2009, which has since become an annual tradition and has grown to over 60 attendees (we are planning to return to Cedar Rapids Campgrounds in Barryville, NY for a third time this summer, join the NE regional Facebook group to receive updates). Victor has returned to UMD's campus as a speaker on several occasions, including an event last November, as well as speaking on the "Ask an alum!" workshop during our conference last month where he also organized an SSDP alumni network dinner.

Outside of campus, Victor has been active in New Jersey state drug policy reform efforts. As a Community Organizer with the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of NJ, Victor organizes media events and coordinates public education efforts. Most recently, he has begun work on developing a 911 Amnesty Policy for the Garden State.

Victor currently volunteers his time to SSDP through his role as New Jersey State Coordinator. Greg Hansch, graduate student adviser to our Rutgers - New Brunswick chapter, shares some insight on the value of Victor's role in NJ:

" The guidance that he has provided Rutgers and other chapters in the state has been critical to those chapters' formation and growth. He has not only been great about emailing us and talking to us on the phone when we need help, but he also has come to New Brunswick on several occasions and led planning meetings, introduced guest speakers, and gave a pro-bono presentation on medical marijuana in New Jersey. His connections to other drug policy reformers in the area have provided us with some amazing guest speakers. Victor's the man. Thanks for taking the time to honor a truly outstanding SSDP alum!"

Victor led by example and established a tradition of smooth leadership transition, allowing UMD SSDP and NORML Terps to continue to thrive. I saw him working hard, taking initiative, conducting research, writing letters to the editor and working with the media on a variety of issues. I also saw how other campus leaders turned to Victor as an expert in all matters related to marijuana and other drug policies. I can say from personal experience that without Victor's leadership, UMD SSDP and NORML Terps would not be where they are today. We've been able to follow his lead. And because of the solid foundation built by him and others, I'm confident that the impression he left during his time at UMD isn't going away anytime soon.

Chapter Leader of the Week: Brandon Levey, University of Maryland

SSDP: When did you 1st get involved with SSDP?

LEVEY: I first got active in SSDP at the end of my first semester in college, in the spring semester of 2009. I looked through the student group directory that semester, checked out a few student groups, and of many groups found SSDP and NORML at UMD to be the ones that really were trying to make a difference. The members, people who I didn't know at the time but now are some of my closest friends, seemed the most committed, most organized, and most ready to make change.

SSDP: What has been your favorite SSDP experience?

LEVEY: When we were pushing for a Good Samaritan Policy (something that ended with success this semester!), we decided to reach out to parents on "Visit Maryland Weekend." While I knew that a GSP was something that was important, I was new to SSDP and a bit skeptical about talking to parents, an audience that might not have been as receptive to some of our issues as students. However, to my surprise, the parents were just as supportive of the policy as the students!

This was when I realized that SSDP was really a group that could appeal to all demographics. Drug policy reform is not at all limited to students or people our age, but is something that would positively affect everybody, even if they don't realize it yet.

SSDP: What issues are most important for your chapter?
LEVEY: In the 1980's, Len Bias, a rising basketball star, was about to graduate from our school when he died of a cocaine overdose. More recently, there have been other UMD drug and alcohol overdose deaths, including Danny Reardon of an alcohol overdose in 2002. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, these deaths led to a University and even statewide crackdown on underage drinking and drug use, with harsher penalties and even the establishment of mandatory minimums.

Thanks to the incredible past leadership in our chapter, however, we finally got a Good Samaritan Policy covering alcohol overdose for both the victim and caller passed this semester. The general mindset on our campus has changed drastically towards a harm reduction rather than punitive approach, and SSDP has played the vital role in this. We hope to work and make this Good Samaritan Policy comprehensive in the coming year, and also plan on working towards an "alcohol-marijuana equalization" initiative. The punishments in our university for marijuana use are some of the strictest in the nation, and we will be pushing for more rational policies

SSDP: Do you have any events planned for this semester?

LEVEY: We've got a ton! Just in April alone, we are having a "religion, spirituality, and drug use" event where we will be hosting a campus Rabbi to discuss religious texts and how they look at drug use, both legal and illegal. We also plan on having Neill Franklin from LEAP at the end of this month, and having an event with our campus NORML chapter on the prohibition of synthetics such as K2 and Spice.

On the "fun and networking" side, SSDP and NORML on campus are hosting a "Safe Rave"- a rave to benefit our groups with harm reduction drug information and free water, as well as "Domefest"- a music festival featuring Papadosio and giving us an excellent opportunity to network with other groups and people on campus. Additionally, we will be participating in Relay for Life with many other students from around campus.

Join our Facebook group and/or our e-mail list to stay informed about these and other events at UMD.

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

LEVEY: The people, and the fact that all of us together really are making such an amazing change- on a school, local, regional, and even national level. Victory is coming sooner than we think.
SSDP: Do you have any advice for other chapter leaders?
LEVEY: Get as many new members as you can to conferences, both regional, national, and international! The one thing that will keep a member involved really is experiencing first-hand how awesome, organized, effective and fun SSDP is! Also, make sure that SSDP isn't a "meeting-only" type of organization by making sure to interact with active members in a different more relaxed setting as well.
SSDP: What's your favorite "SSDP quote"?

LEVEY: One of our super rock stars and chapter leaders, our secretary Justin Kander, said this about ending the drug war and allowing people to live in freedom:

"I'm just happy we have the opportunity to help eliminate pain the world, whatever we can do. Right now we sit in such comfort, but life can be absolutely destroyed by pain.. It must be eliminated to the greatest extent, no matter what, which is why we must keep fighting for what is right."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Outstanding Student Activist Award: Katharine Celentano

Earlier this month over 400 people gathered at our 2011
Training Conference and Lobby Day, and to wrap things up on the last day, SSDP recognized the achievements of several extraordinary student and non-student members during the Awards Ceremony and Benefit Concert. In the coming weeks, keep an eye out as we will write one blog post for each award recipient highlighting the hard work that made them stand out from the crowd.

Two students each year receive the "Outstanding Student Activist" award. In our first award profile, it's easy to see why Katharine Celentano (Columbia University) deserves this honor. In fact, I think "outstanding" might even be an understatement...

Katharine Celentano made hundreds of calls to California voters last year urging them to support the passage of Proposition 19 to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Katharine earned the title of "Professional Phonebanker" using the Just Say Now phonebanking tool, rising to and staying near the top of the leaderboard during the entire campaign. With 551 points earned, only two others made more calls than she did, all while tackling her first semester of rigorous coursework studying Neuroscience and Behavior at CU.

Katharine has been advocating for a Good Samaritan policy on campus at Columbia, currently the only Ivy League school that does not protect students from punishment when calling 911 in alcohol and other drug related medical emergencies. Because of the work she and others have done, the school administration is now closer than ever to adopting this life-saving overdose prevention policy.

She also initiated a coordinated media response to last year's "Operation Ivy League" drug bust involving five Columbia students, shining light on campus drug law enforcement and calling for a change in policing practices.

Last month, she helped draft and issue this press release in response to startling data indicating an increase in low-level marijuana arrests targeting youth and people of color in New York city.

Katharine has been instrumental in building a coalition of on- and off-campus individuals and groups such as CHURON, the Columbia University Harm Reduction Outreach Network, and the Washington Heights CORNER Project, a local syringe exchange program, to coordinate harm reduction efforts with the SSDP chapter across all CU schools at the university as well as within the larger community.

This is not the first time we've told you about her work, and it certainly won't be the last.

Congratulations Katharine!

Sign the Letter to AG Holder: Stop the Raids

Despite the Department of Justice memo advising the DEA and federal prosecutors not to spend resources arresting medical marijuana patients and raiding medical marijuana providers in states that have passed legislation protecting these people, federal agents have recently shut down 26 medical cannabis dispensaries in Montana and California. 

Just Say Now, SSDP's partnership with Firedoglake has written a letter telling Attorney General Holder to enforce his memo and prohibit federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. We want you to sign on to the letter. 

As Attorney General, Holder has the ability to enforce his memo and end these raids. He should send a strong message that federal law enforcement resources should not be abused and wasted to override state's rights. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Meet the 3 newest SSDP chapters!

We're proud to welcome new officially established SSDP chapters at Louisiana State University - Shreveport, University of Houston - Clear Lake, and University of Pittsburgh this week! Read more about each new group and the student leaders who founded them.

Louisiana State University - Shreveport
Shreveport, LA - Southern Region
The LSUS Student News covered the newly created chapter, watch an excerpt of the video report here.

Rachal Cox learned about SSDP from friends who are involved in one of our strongest chapters at the University of Arkansas - Fayetteville. Currently, LSUS is our only active chapter in Louisiana, and they've quickly gotten things up and running in just a few short weeks.

Klaire Moss found SSDP online last summer and was interested in developing her skills as an activist. Using the resources we have available, she gathered other interested students and went through the school's process for creating a new student organization. This new chapter makes 2 in the city of Houston, TX, joining the University of Houston as strong voices for reform in the south.

Julia Johnson and the other students at UPitt have been working on establishing their chapter since last semester, and just received official student group recognition last week! They've already begun to work with the local NORML chapter on marijuana policy related events. Also, UPitt SSDP will be tabling at this Bassnectar show as part of our AMPLIFY project. Be sure to stop by!