Cannabis policy reform has accelerated in the last 18 years, in large part due to a little-known student movement, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). This group of motivated, pragmatic college students formed in 1998 to end the harms of the drug war. They are articulate, politically savvy young adults who are willing to volunteer hundreds of hours to make change happen at their universities, in their cities, across the U.S. and internationally.
The SSDP organization has grown from five chapters on the East Coast to an international activist network with chapters in 35 states and 13 countries. This April, 550 students, alumni, and supporters gathered in Washington D.C. to educate themselves and build a close-knit community at the annual national conference. The conference program featured the action students are taking regarding cannabis legalization and other important harm reduction policies, such as medical amnesty laws and naloxone access.
To propel SSDP’s efforts, networking with fellow activists at the conference is crucial. Alumni from the very earliest days are perennial attendees, providing mentorship to the new members. Sophomore Cody Dorce from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte recently attended a national conference for the first time.
“I enjoyed being surrounded by individuals who shared the same values and believed in the same ideals,” Dorce said. “It allows for a much more progressive thought process when the foundation of our thoughts are so similar. I didn’t realize how vast the networking opportunities would be, but I was even meeting people from Nigeria!”
Voter education is a major focus of SSDP’s efforts. The Ohio State University chapter held public forums last year around competing legalization ballot initiatives. Issue 3 was well-funded yet contentious because it gave an oligopoly on cultivation licenses to the people who funded the initiative. SSDP’s Ohio chapter president, Cassie Young, who received the “Outstanding Student Activist” award for her work, had this take on the defeat of Issue 3:
“…Nuanced conversations ensued, and a state with over 50 percent support for full legalization only supported the measure by 36 percent,” Young said. “It has become apparent that as unfortunate as Issue 3 was for the Ohio cannabis community, it ignited a crucial conversation the reform movement was sleeping on: whether the ‘anything over prohibition’ philosophy/strategy is outdated.”
Currently, SSDP chapters around the state are working under leadership from students like Young and Kent State University chapter leader Elise Szabo to collaborate with Ohioans for Medical Marijuana and the Marijuana Policy Project in renewed efforts to legalize medical cannabis.
The SSDP chapter at the Dublin City University (DCU) in Ireland had success this spring advocating for cannabis legalization. Members petitioned the university to put forward a referendum before the student body. Their referendum, which instructs the student union to advocate for decriminalization and legalization policies, passed this month with over 70 percent support. The referendum then started a wider conversation about cannabis regulation in Ireland.
“Students for Sensible Drug Policy was my gateway from lethargy to political activism,” DCU student Eleanor Hulm said. “It has transformed my life, it has taught me that change comes in the power of numbers — and numbers come from individuals. I can change the world.”
The DCU chapter received the “Change Beyond Campus” award for their recent efforts and the efforts of fellow Irish SSDP chapters.
SSDP students organized massive voter education drives around recent legalization initiatives and plan to reach even more voters this year. In 2012, outreach efforts leading up to the passage of Amendment 64 in Colorado reached 35,000 potential voters. The national staff has plans to organize an outreach and education campaign run by student volunteers that will reach 50,000 potential voters ahead of the November elections in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Massachusetts. It is efforts like these that are replacing punitive laws with legalization and regulation.
For years, student activists in SSDP have organized for decriminalization, harm reduction and honest education about drug use and drug policy. Their message of “Education, not Incarceration” has reached far beyond the few colleges where the movement started. The achievements of these passionate young activists stand as testament that a willingness to volunteer time and engage with the political process can achieve historic political change.
Are you a member of SSDP? Tell us about your experiences.