We had a moment recently to talk with Kris Krane, the Executive Director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), to discuss the organization, its goals, and what he thinks of the political climate surrounding American drug policy, in this special 420 interview.
The result is not only intriguing, but below.
Explain what SSDP is and how it works.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy is a network of students around the country working to bring about more fair and just drug policies that are rooted in fairness and common sense, rather than dogma and propaganda. We have a full time staff working in Washington, DC and San Francisco to organize SSDP chapters, of which there are over 120 on college and high school campuses around the country. These students work on issues ranging from enacting sensible drug policies on their campuses (a good example would be a Good Samaritan Policy that protects a student who calls security to help an overdosing friend from punishment for the underlying drug offense), to educating the general public about the failures of the War on Drugs.
We also employ a full time government relations director in our Washington, DC office who lobbies Congress on drug policy issues that impact young people and students. Our lobbying efforts are focused on repealing the law that denies financial aid to students with drug convictions, cutting the Office of National Control Policy's budget for propaganda anti-drug ads aimed at youth, and slashing the federal budget for grants to schools to implement random student drug testing program.
What exactly are you guys fighting for?
This can best be answered in our mission and value statements, and our structure as a grassroots organization:
Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities, but who also know that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society.
SSDP mobilizes and empowers young people to participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies, particularly those that directly harm students and youth.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy neither encourages nor condemns drug use. Rather, we seek to reduce the harms caused by drug abuse and drug policies. As young people, we strive toward a just and compassionate society where drug abuse is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. We recognize that the very real harms of drug abuse are not adequately addressed by current policies and we advocate measures that would effectively help those who develop drug problems.
Yet, we also believe that individuals must ultimately be allowed to make decisions for themselves as long as their actions do not infringe upon anyone else’s freedoms or safety. Because the War on Drugs has historically been justified as necessary to protect youth, it is our responsibility as young people to stop this harmful war from being waged in our names any longer. As scholars, we seek solutions to society's drug problems through focused research, honest dialogue, and informed debate, instead of unquestioned extremism, punishment, and propaganda.
Structure as a Grassroots Organization:
SSDP is comprised of student chapters all across the country. Any student anywhere can start a chapter. While SSDP has a variety of national campaigns and actions that everyone can participate in, chapters are also encouraged to work on those issues that have the most traction in their own communities. Annually, SSDPers convene for a national conference. There, students acquire essential activist knowledge and skills. Also, chapters elect students to serve on SSDP's Board of Directors. The Board in turn selects SSDP's executive director, who is responsible for tending to both the day-to-day operations of the organization, as well as its long-term direction. An important duty of the executive director is to hire staff. Currently, besides an executive director, SSDP has a government relations director, a field director, an outreach director, and a webmaster. Ultimately, the SSDP staff exists to serve SSDP's chapters and activists.
Legally, SSDP consists of two separate, distinct entities - Students for Sensible Drug Policy Foundation and Students for Sensible Drug Policy Inc. The former, as a 501(c)3 organization, engages in education and outreach. Donations to SSDP Foundation are tax-deductible. SSDP Inc, as a 501(c)4 organization, engages in advocacy, or attempts to effect change to law and policy. Accordingly, donations to SSDP Inc are not tax-deductible.
How do you think our government has misrepresented the American “drug problem?”
The biggest misrepresentation of America's drug problem is the belief, propagated by our government, that drugs are a criminal justice issue. Instead, drugs should be treated as the public health issue they truly are. This would allow us to stop dehumanizing drug users, both problematic users and casual users, and move more people into drug treatment who truly need it. A public health approach to drugs would differentiate between use and abuse, so that drug treatment is available to those with serious addiction issues and not wasted on people who happen to get caught with a small amount of marijuana and are diverted into treatment over jail. It would stress harm reduction policies such as needle exchange programs, methadone maintenance, and safe injection sites that cost a fraction of the cost we currently spend on law enforcement, and would save tens of thousands of lives from diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, not to mention the savings to society on health care costs.
Thanks largely to the War on Drugs, the United States is currently the world's largest incarcerator, both in raw numbers and per capita. The US makes up 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population. We incarcerate close to 600,000 people on non-violent drug offenses (25% of all US prisoners), more than all Western European nations combined incarcerates for all crimes. Meanwhile, drug laws have been enforced in a racially biased manner across the board. While African Americans make up 13% of the population and 13% of drug users, they make up 37% of those arrested, 53% of those convicted, and 67% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, one in three black males between the ages of 18 and 30 is currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system - in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. And these convictions come at a high cost, as those convicted of drug offenses are denied good paying jobs, public assistance benefits such as food stamps, access to public housing, and financial aid to attend college, making it far more likely that an offender will become destitute and have drug abuse problems in the future.
Yet our criminal justice approach to the drug problem has had little impact. Drugs today are cheaper, more widely available, and purer than at any point in history. The promise of a "drug free America" has never and will never be a realistic goal. Instead we need to recognize that drug use is a reality, and deal with the issue in a way that stresses public health and science based education, implement programs that reduce the harms associated with drug use and drug abuse, and make treatment available on demand for all who truly need it.
Have you made any strides toward accomplishing your goals?
SSDP has made significant achievements on the issues that we've worked on over the last few years. At the federal level, we convinced Congress in 2006 to scale back the Aid Elimination Penalty, the law that automatically denies eligibility for federal financial aid for college to any student with a drug conviction. Congress removed the penalty's "reach back effect" so that students with convictions on their records prior to enrolling in college are now eligible for aid. The penalty now only impacts those students who are receiving aid at the time of their conviction. While we continue to push for full repeal (Congress is currently considering repealing the penalty altogether as part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization), we consider it a victory that we were able to convince a Republican controlled Congress and White House to scale back a federal drug law.
At the grassroots level, SSDP chapters have had a number of successes on their campuses and in their communities. SSDP chapters have convinced their administrations to enact Good Samaritan Policies at the University of Georgia, Franklin Pierce University, the University of Connecticut, The College of William & Mary, and the University of Central Florida. SSDP chapters have successfully lobbied their schools to lower penalties for first time marijuana possession at the University of Maryland and the University of Maine. The SSDP chapters at the University of Rhode Island and Brown University teamed up to form the Rhode Island Patients Advocacy Coalition (for whom SSDP served as the fiscal sponsor), who successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a medical marijuana law in 2006. The SSDP chapter at Missouri University ran two city-wide ballot initiatives in 2004, both of which passed, that protected medical marijuana patients from arrest in the city of Columbia, and made marijuana possession the city's lowest law enforcement priority.
Currently the SSDP chapter at Missouri Southern State University is working with the local NORML chapter to run a lowest law enforcement priority initiative in the city of Joplin, MO, which is slated to appear on the November 2008 ballot.
Will this eventually be a non-issue, as older folks give way to younger folks who are more in-touch with the culture?
The polling shows that support for ending harmful Drug War policies increases gradually over time. Marijuana decriminalization, for example, for was only supported by about 25% of the population in the "permissive" 1970's, but enjoys nearly 60% support today. Similar trend lines exist for other Drug War policies. So I think it is fair to say that as generations who have had more exposure to drugs, both good and bad, get older, public opinion tends to favor more rational drug policies. However, since the Drug War has always been waged in the name off protecting youth, it is incumbent on the younger generation to get actively involved in changing the laws.
How can students get involved?
Students can get involved with the local SSDP chapter on their campus. If a chapter does not already exist, starting one is easy and fun. We have a full time staff dedicated to helping students through the process of starting a chapter, and will help come up with ideas for projects and recruitment. Students can find a number of resources on how to get involved on our website at www.SchoolsNotPrisons.com.