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At this weekend's Northeast Regional Students for Sensible Drug Policy Conference, 120 college students representing eight different states and Washington, D.C. - including 20 from Brown - gathered to discuss drug policy reform's focus on human rights.
"We wanted ... to show people that this drug war in America is a war on people who use drugs rather than a war on drugs," said Brown SSDP Social Chair Elizabeth Kinnard '14. "It's about stigmatizing people and putting people in prison for victimless crimes."
With the theme "Talk it Up," the conference provided networking opportunities, in addition to six panels featuring representatives from various areas of drug policy reform and three keynote speakers. Topics discussed included the medicinal benefits of marijuana, coalition-building with other community organizations, the criminal justice system, the treatment of drug abuse as a public health issue and increasing diversity in SSDP chapters and the drug policy reform movement.
The conference began Friday night with a speech by Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives at the Drug Policy Alliance. Harris highlighted the failure of the "War on Drugs." "Why do we continue to have this bizarre conversation?" she asked. "Everybody in this country takes drugs. My friends put their dog on Prozac." Still, she added, some drug users are "second-class citizens for life" due to harsh drug policies and prolonged prison sentences.
Changing these policies isn't easy, Harris said. America listens to people with certain characteristics: "They wear suits. They're older than you guys. They don't look scruffy. They don't have nose rings." Despite these obstacles, Harris encouraged the audience to fight for drug policy reform. "You gotta have some juice coursing through your veins to make life worth living. This movement is that," she said.
SSDP Associate Director Stacia Cosner opened up Saturday's events speaking about her experience with SSDP. A straight-A student at the University of Maryland, Cosner was arrested for possessing fewer than 0.5 grams of marijuana and temporarily put in jail, she said.
She was kicked out of her dorm and put on random drug testing for two years, she said, adding that her peers who engage in weekly underage drinking haven't been disciplined. After the incident, Cosner worked to change university policy with SSDP.
SSDP Outreach Director Devon Tackels, who helped organize the conference, highlighted the consequences for students faced with drug charges. The 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act can prevent students with drug possession charges from receiving federal financial aid, he told The Herald.
President of the Boston University SSDP chapter K.C. Mackey said she originally joined SSDP during her first year for the wrong reasons. "I wanted to find other people to smoke with. I hate to admit that, but it's precisely the reason that I don't want people to join today." It did not take her long to realize that SSDP dealt with much deeper issues, she said. "I realized at the core of our society was patriarchy, racism and classism. The 'War on Drugs' was just a tool to perpetuate these ideologies," she said. Mackey said she realized at an international SSDP conference that she wanted to spend her life pursuing drug policy reform.
George Melton, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, said he became involved in SSDP after his brother was arrested and drug-tested for marijuana in Texas.
"The 'War on Drugs' costs more than the good it's causing," said Daniel De Vasquez, a student at the Community College of Rhode Island, who is working to start an SSDP chapter at his school.
Corey Walker, associate professor and chair of the Africana studies department, closed the conference with a short speech Saturday evening. "I'm asking you to be truly and really radical Democrats," he told the audience. Walker stressed the need for "radical reorientation of our society." Otherwise, he said, "we will continue to see massive amounts of individuals incarcerated, and continue to manifest inept public policy." Walker thanked the audience for their consciousness, activism and moral imagination. "The energy in this room will bring us to a brighter place," he said. "I stake my life on that."
Brown SSDP President Jared Moffat '13, an opinions editor at The Herald, Kinnard and Tackels worked to organize the conference beginning in May. The Brown chapter of SSDP has about 20 active members, Kinnard said.


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