From September 26 to September 29, over four hundred drug policy reform advocates gathered in Arlington, Virginia for the 2014 Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) Conference and Lobby Day. Not only were student chapters from across the United States present, representatives from Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), SSDP Ireland, and SSDP UK were also in attendance. Passionate students, SSDP alumni, and professionals came together to share a weekend filled with interesting discussions, thought provoking ideas, and new connections.
Although there was a great deal of variety in the topics covered by breakout sessions and keynote speakers, a significant portion understandably focused on the rising United States cannabis industry. Many of the students in attendance were interested in entering this field post-graduation and therefore valued the opportunity to learn more about the cannabis industry and strategies for increasing their employability in the field. Moreover, the campaigns many SSDP chapters are currently working on involve cannabis, such as the medicinal marijuana campaign in Florida. Hence, a focus on cannabis was very relevant and timely to many of the attendees.
Nevertheless, by including many sessions and speakers on other issues, SSDP ensured that students understood that drug policy reform is about much more than cannabis. The title of one of their panels put it nicely – “We’re not done yet! The importance of activism in the age of legalization.” Nightlife harm reduction, discrimination, decriminalisation, and gender were just some of the other issues covered during the conference. The conference also catered to its audience by hosting numerous panels and speakers on the topic of maximizing chapter effectiveness, including how to best use the media and how to ensure success despite a difficult administration.
One of the most compelling elements of the 2014 SSDP Conference was the number of SSDP alumni speaking on panels. This should not be surprising given that SSDP has been active for eighteen years. Nevertheless, listening to the SSDP alumni discuss their fields of work provided student attendees with an understanding of the variety of jobs available and the many different components of drug policy. For example, during a session on harm reduction and homelessness, James Kowalsky, an alumni of the Northwestern SSDP chapter that now works as an outreach worker at Heartland Health Outreach, discussed the “housing first” model of harm reduction. He noted that for approximately 20% of homeless individuals, it is very difficult to find housing because of their mental health and substance use issues, chronic health conditions, and histories of incarceration. The traditional model of housing in the United States requires individuals to show they are “housing ready” by progressively moving up the chain of housing (from night shelters to transitional housing units to independent apartments). This creates a model in which individuals have to jump through hoops to get housing, despite the fact that housing is supposed to be a human right. The housing first model addresses this problem by having low threshold admissions, reduced service requirements, and harm reduction policies and practices in place (such as wet houses). James Kowalsky explained that the rationale behind this approach is that if we increase people’s access to housing, we can improve health outcomes, and therefore incur cost savings. By providing people with housing, we can give them the stability necessary to make more proactive choices about their health and the way they engage with the health care system. By speaking on this panel, James Kowalsky not only showcased the kind of work an SSDP alumni can do, he also exposed attendees to a model of harm reduction that most of them were unfamiliar with.
Another interesting characteristic of the conference was the presence of attendees from different political ideologies. For example, having both Republican and libertarian speakers on a particular panel led to disagreements during the question and answer period, particularly on the increasing use of drug courts in the United States. However, bringing together different political ideologies was especially effective in demonstrating to attendees how to best frame arguments in a way that is persuasive to conservative audiences. Lauren Galik from Reason Foundation noted that in conservative states, persuasive arguments include saving tax dollars, enhancing public safety, and the importance of federalism/state experimentation.
The 2014 SSDP Conference and Lobby Day not only left students energized and inspired, it also allowed them the opportunity to put their knowledge and skills to good use. Students spent their last day meeting with elected officials in Washington D.C. and urging them to support two important pieces of federal legislation, specifically the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The former piece of legislation aims to reduce prison costs and populations by creating fairer, less costly minimum terms for nonviolent drug offenders. The latter addresses the country’s contradiction regarding cannabis laws by creating an exemption in the Controlled Substances Act for anyone acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. By mobilizing students and having them participate in direct political advocacy, SSDP was able to accomplish much more than a traditional conference!
Watch the video below to find out even more about the 2014 SSDP Conference and Lobby Day.
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