Marijuana's Civic Lesson
Students learn how to lobby for marijuana reform
April 29, 2003 1:01 PM
A few years ago, Spencer Wilton, now a high school senior in Lafayette California, got caught with marijuana. Pulled over by police in a parking lot, Wilton and a few of his friends began a lengthy engagement with the local court system in his town. He still hasn’t forgotten about the ordeal.
“I don’t want to see that happen to anyone,” he said about the experience.
Wilton is sitting in a plush armchair outside a series of meeting rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco. He’s one of almost a hundred young people here who have been motivated by marijuana to get politically involved and organized. It’s a strange new twist to the drug war, and it’s teaching many students a lot.
This was April 20th. For many cannabis users the date (which corresponds to “4-20,” a widely used code for marijuana) is a day to kick back, have a party, and get stoned. But this year students from across the country chose to observe this counter culture holiday differently. They got up early and headed downtown, paying money to sit inside all day to learn about lobbying, letter writing and fundraising – all essential tools in their fight to legalize marijuana.
The event marked the closing day of the annual conference for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. It was also the first time the group dedicated an entire day to student activism. Founded more than 30 years ago, NORML wants to decriminalize the use of marijuana. Many students support its mission.
Chris Carillo, a senior at UCLA drove up from Los Angeles to attend the day-long session designed to teach students how to become more effective student activists and drug reform advocates.
“I think the drug war is wrong. It’s ignoring the issues that interest the people,” he said before the opening speech began in the Hyatt Regency’s Grand Ballroom.
Carillo woke up to issues surrounding the drug war after getting arrested for drug possession in Malibu. Now he wants to start a NORML chapter at his campus to advocate drug law reform.
Seven students from Florida State University attended the NORML conference, flying out for the four-day event. Mason McLeod is the board of director’s events coordinator for FSU’s NORML chapter. He says Florida’s harsh drug-enforcement practices are the impetus behind his activism. During his first year at college, he saw about half a dozen students in his dorm led out in handcuffs after being caught smoking marijuana.
“I don’t think that’s the way you should treat incoming freshman,” he said.
But McLeod wants a lot more than the freedom to smoke marijuana in his dorm.
“What we would all really like to see is an end to the drug war,” he said of his fellow NORML members.
Like many other students at the event, McLeod feels marijuana is currently fueling a war on drugs that is intimately linked to other issues – like lack of funding for education and racial discrimination within the criminal justice system.
Yuko Oku, a junior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, feels the same way. She also flew to San Francisco to attend the conference.
“I think the drug war does a lot of harm, especially concerning civil rights,” she said.
Still too young to drink legally, Oku is motivated to change national drug policy. She wants to start a NORML chapter at her school, and hopes to establish a needle exchange program in her community. She intends to write congressional representatives about reversing a current law that denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions.
Another student at the conference, Jonathan Sidney, was accompanied by his father. Sidney sat quietly through each session and took detailed notes on each subject presented – topics like “how to run a meeting,” “how to write a press release” and “rallies and direct action.”
“I’m very interested in all kinds of political issues, like the death penalty, economic justice, the environment and civil liberties,” he said later.
Sidney is 13 and a 7th-grader in Oakland. He thinks it’s a horrible waste of resources to prosecute and punish marijuana users.
Sidney liked the student session and thinks he learned a lot of skills that can be applied to almost any issue. He thinks that after completing junior high, high school and college he might become a lawyer for ACLU or NORML or start his own public interest firm. He also thinks he might run for congress.
Richard Meyer, public information officer for the San Francisco division of the Drug Enforcement Agency, applauds Sidney's passion but not his views.
"He's entitled to his opionion but the American people don't feel that way," Meyer said.
"We keep electing officials who are against the legalization of drugs," he added.
Meyer believes the true agenda of NORML is the legalization of all drugs, not only marijuana.
For NORML members it will be an uphill battle to get on the "right" side of the law.
Visit these links for more information about NORML, the marijuana legalization movement and those who oppose it:
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Free America
U.S.Drug Enforcement Administration
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