By Devon Tackles
This past March, Students for Sensible Drug Policy held their 11th Annual International conference in the “mecca” of marijuana law reform, San Francisco. Hundreds of students from across the world were brought together to take part in the most comprehensive hands on student activist experience offered to education and training to fight back against the failed war on drugs. This experience was one of the most monumental of my life, combining my passions for student activism and ending drug prohibition.
On the first day of this year’s conference entitled “This Is Your Brain on Drug Policy”, allowed students to get a first hand look at the booming medical marijuana industry from the inside out. SSDP students were given the special opportunity to tour Oaksterdam University and Harborside Health Center in Oakland. We were able to get an inside view of the cannabusiness and get our questions answered by the professionals hard at work. For many of us (especially those of us from the east coast), this was our first experience seeing this type of regulations in action, and needless to say we were thrilled to have such an opportunity! At Harborside Health Center, we received an exceptional inside look at the more sensible marijuana laws and policies that many of our chapters are fighting for, and it was amazing to see them working in a compassionate and professional manner. Being able to see Harborside’s true vision in action was invigorating, and only instilled more motivation for our chapter to bring them to the east coast. The evening continued with a “Meet & Greet” conference reception, where Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave a powerful keynote address focusing on “the wind at our backs”, and why now is the time for drug policy reform. Afterwards, the annual SSDP Congress had it’s session where chapter representatives proposed resolutions and heard 19 candidate speeches from students running for four elected positions on SSDP’s Board of Directors.
Saturday, was jam packed with breakout panel sessions focusing on “Drug War Education” from every perspective, and allowed students to get their tough questions answered from qualified veterans fighting against the failed war on drugs. Some highlights of the day included the MAPS psychedelic seminar, an inside look into drug trade violence in Mexico, drug legalization, and more. These panels were comprised of some of the most trusted and experienced activists and educators in the nation, who truly captivated their audiences. The hardest part was finding time to hear all the thoughtful questions from all the eager students, who came prepared with questions that most may have been afraid to answer. As the sun set over the bay, Representative Tom Ammiano gave a beautiful keynote speech concerning the hardships endured in the historical fight for medical marijuana in San Francisco.
That night was the SSDP benefit party and awards ceremony. At Broadway Studios in San Francisco, we enjoyed performances by Roots of Creation and the Panda Conspiracy. Board members announced newly elected board members, and SSDP’s staff recognized top student chapters, activists, alumni, and supporters with awards such as “Outstanding Chapter”, “Outstanding Alumni”, and “Lifetime Achievement”. While the music played all night, it was great to see our vast network of students and friends networking and partying. We must remind ourselves that not only does this movement require hard work and persistent activism, but also a supportive community of peers and friends to help you through your own SSDP hardships and endeavors. Seeing so many SSDPers in one place was truly incredible.
Tired and worn from the previous events, “conference Sunday” finally hit. Exhausted yet enthusiastic students and non-students still showed up bright and early for a day of hands on student activist training workshops. Sunday was focused on student activist training, and covered effective lobbying techniques, media relations, campaign strategizing, social networking, and much more. This showed us how to use our newly acquired knowledge, take advantage of our current political climate, and gave us the tools and skills needed to actually make things happen. The day went by quickly, concluding with a closing ceremony with SSDP’s five staffers, and a screening of Flex Your Rights’ newest film “10 Rules for Dealing with The Police”.
In the end, this event brought out some of the most heated passion I have ever seen in young activists. Getting to see the tough issues tackled, and the hard questions answered really meant a lot to me, especially coming from Virginia, a state that avoids and often pokes fun at serious drug policy issues. I plan to take what I learned from this experience and use it to energize and recruit more drug policy reformers in my region, while fighting back against the counterproductive Virginia drug laws. Now home from the conference, I am fueled up and ready for the long and bumpy road ahead. One thing can be said for certain, the future of the drug policy reform is in the right hands, and I’m more excited than ever to be a part of the student movement to end the war on drugs!
Devon Tackels, President & Founder of SSDP at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA