Thursday, November 17, 2005

How we fight the drug war

It strikes me that the post "Why we fight the drug war" should be part of a larger depiction of all the questions which face us as we move forward.

The "Why," which certainly seems to most fundamental question, is also the most unspeakable and the most eligible for "agree to disagree" solutions.

As some may know, I have recently taken an interest into the important question of “how” – that is, which tactics are most likely to effect change, and how they fit into a larger strategy of implementing the “what” and the “why.”

This, the “how,” appears to me to be the most visible stumbling block facing the movement. I’m not saying this is a problem – this and all movements, when they become sufficiently serious and cared for, become a list of stumbling blocks which must be resolved one at a time.

My efforts to address the “how” at the SSDP national congress seem to have resonated very well with people with whom I’ve never personally discussed the issue – I received more private praise for my comments than I think I ever have before at an SSDP congress.

However, the people I have come to know and work with, and in many cases love, seemed to be dismayed by some of what I was suggesting.

Let me first debunk what I feel was a major misperception of my comments: that I was advocating the dismantlement or de-emphasis of the national office in the short term. I was not. In fact I love the national office, and my observation has consistently been that the national office and chapters have a stronger, smarter relationship than either of those entities have with the board of directors.

Likewise, while I did describe my vision of a future which does not include a board of directors, I also tried to make clear that this was my vision of the far future – years and maybe decades away – and in fact this is a part of my vision for all of human interaction, not just SSDP.

The most contentious of my comments, however, seem to have been those regarding our involvement in the national legislative process, and I’d like to start a serious, well rounded discussion about this subject.

Please understand that my comments on this subject come in a very specific context. I strongly considered applying to become SSDP’s legislative director. My own interest in the legislative process is what has compelled me to seek and win the highest legislative office at my school, and also that which has led me to form relationships with my own congresscritters and to frequently engage in the process of lobbying and engaging legislatures personally.

Following my decision not to apply, I began to think much more critically about my place in the movement and what it means in relation to the board. I realized that I and many of my chaptermates are quite capable of engaging the legislature when needed, but that as students, this tactic was simply not as effective as other tactics.

Make no mistake: It is clear to me, as I imagine it is to chapters, the board, and the office, that under our current system of government it is necessary to engage the legislature to make change. No question about it.

Until this changes, the drug policy reform movement clearly must have a strong and efficient legislative component.

The real question then, is this: Is it the place of SSDP to engage the legislature or does it make more sense to leave this task to other organizations who are in a more logical place to employ this tactic?

I believe that the latter conclusion is the only sustainable one.

I have many (many) more thoughts on this subject, but I’m interested to hear what others think as well.

I would like to say, though, that I have the utmost appreciation for the work that many individuals have put into this movement to make our current and future situations possible.

I am sad to see Scarlett leaving us, and although I’m sure this will be the topic of future posts, I would like to reiterate my comments at the congress that our current stagnation cannot be blamed on her, but must be attributed to more systemic causes.

More to come soon – including updates on the SSDPNE conference, Rock Against Racism, our fight to end the expulsion policy at New Paltz, and much more.

Finally, Tom: thanks for setting this blog up – technology is the way to revolution. Thanks also for letting me add to this project – I am excited about it.


Tom Angell said...

Justin, thanks for weighing in here with your thoughts, and for your continual contribution to the dialogue on how SSDP can be the most effective organization we can be.

With that said, I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with you that us young people should leave federal lobbying efforts in DC to other organizations.

We are the DARE Generation. It us up to us to change these policies that will affect us for the rest of our lives if we don't do something about it. Legislators need to hear from us - the people whom the Drug War is supposed to protect. When we, as young people ourselves, go into the halls of Congress, we are able to speak to the need to change these policies much more effectively than folks from DPA or MPP can. Even though these orgs have excellent lobbyists, they just can't put a face on the effects of these policies like we can.

Additionally, while these groups have been working hard alongside us on our core issues like HEA, drug testing, and DARE, they have many other issues on their plates and aren't always able to make youth-oriented issues a priority like we can.

Good post. Let's keep the discussion going. What do others think?

Ross Wilson said...

Thanks, Justin and Tom. I have to say that it is interesting that Justin considered applying for the Legislative Director position given his opposition to its existence. I also remember that a couple years ago he ran for the Board, which he also suggested dissolving at this year's Congress. Perhaps next year he'll advocate disbanding the Congress?

I do think that Justin touches on an important point regarding the need for the SSDP's work to be a true grassroots movement. The national staff and the board should be an extention of the grassroots activists, not vice versa.

But, as one woman in the Congress mentioned, having a national institution for SSDP and a grassroots movement at the chapter level is not mutally exlusive. In other words, one does not take resources from the other. There is no balance that needs to be struck because the efficacy of each is only magnified by the other. The staff provides resources, expertise, coordination, and (sometimes) grants to the chapters. The chapters provide the constituency, voice, and activism that makes the movement effective. I think that the woman in the Congress decribed this phenomenon as working together to grow the pie rather than fighting for its pieces. And frankly, I can't think of any way in which the staff or board could possibly detract from the activists' work. The activists will continue their work, regardless of the efficacy of the staff and board. The question is not "Are the board and staff hurting us?" but "Are they helping us as much as they could?"

It is on that second point that I think there can be an beneficial and informative discussion. And I think the staff and board welcome this discussion. What can they do better? Well, I call and email the national office at least twice a week with my input on how they can improve, and everyone else should contact them with good thoughts and ideas on how to improve. Our movement will be much better for it.

Jonthon said...

Having digested a wonderful conversation, I reflect. Because it is a blog, I will do so in reverse chronology...

Ross started weak and ended strong. That Justin might apply for positions and later question their utility does not invalidate his concerns. Indeed, in the two conferences I've attended, Justin has been one of the most inviting and informative people with whom I have spoken, and I observed intently his comments at congress and on this blog, and in them I find promise (more on this in a moment). Ross then suggests that the national staff and board should act as extensions of the activists, and I agree. I think the national branch should be working to start more chapters, and to coordinate our efforts with the legislative director (the "tail" that should be wagged by nationwide activists). And I think this is the case currently.
Tom "fundamentally disagree[d]" with Justin's argument that we should eliminate the legislative director position. I'll frankly state that I also disagree with Justin's proposal, but I encourage Tom to consider that Justin is promoting a long-term, sociocultural solution. I also like to think that some day, interested individuals will be able to render the lobbyist profession unnecessary. That said, I'm not holding my breath.
Lastly, Justin has again voiced his concerns, and again we are discussing them. I hope some of this discussion will inspire action, as some of his suggestions are cogent. I agree particularly with his suggestion that we consider dissolving the board. My reasons are many. First, I feel that this sets up a natural hierarchy that makes it difficult for newcomers to become fully involved. Second, I worry that the board will be overly coast-centric. Thirdly, unless we are willing to increase the size of the board, it can only become less representative of our movement as it grows. And lastly, given that we struck the fundraising requirements, I am concerned that the board might become more a popularity contest than a leadership contest, as there are no barriers to entry. One contrary argument that I would note here is that board membership guarantees some level of group stability over time.
I disagree with Justin's other recommendation, that being that we should eliminate the legislative director. As I voiced in congress, the existence of this position allows me to tell my parents and interested others that I am involved in law reform. I forward Mulligan's emails to my father, an attorney. When I "broke the news" to him, I told him he could at least take comfort in the fact that if I am breaking the law, I am also actively involved in changing it. From where I sit in Columbia, Missouri, a legislative director is the most efficient and effective way to get this done.
But I think a number of the reactions to Justin's second suggestion bear fruit for our movement. What should the function of our lobbyist be? Is he an arm of the board, of the national office, of any student that contacts him? Yes, all of the above. Is he going to fight tirelessly for harm reduction, medical usage, and eventual full legalization? Yes (and it better be all or nothing on this one!) Could anything be done to make him MORE effective? Great question, Ross, and I have some thoughts about this.
I would like to see the national office, legislative director, and national chapters coordinate their efforts as such: I think that each month, the national office should execute a default campaign. They should develop copy and other printable materials, and disseminate them digitally to contacts at each chapter. Included among these documents should be signature forms. Each chapter could, if they so desired, print out the information, share it with their colleagues, and collect signatures from supporters. These signatures, in turn, could be used by the legislative director to bolster his case when speaking to our representatives in the halls of congress.
As did Ross, Tom, and Justin, I have ideas about this and a number of other things. I find these discussions both invigorating and promising, as ideas are the platforms upon which change agents stand. And as change agents, let us stand together.

As an aside, could I be a blog administrator now?