Thursday, March 18, 2010

SSDP International Conference: Brains + Drugs Do Not Make Fried Eggs

What happens when enough people focused on a singular goal manage to gather together in one place? New expressions of the collective inevitably emerge whether they come as pieces of artwork, breakthroughs in thought, or in magnificent cities. I often found myself wondering as a child what it would be like to stand at the epicenter of a pivotal moment in history as I leafed through stories about the American Revolution, Vietnam, the Civil rights movement and countless other times and places. I have the understanding and intuition now that I am much closer to knowing what this feels like. The conference at San Francisco was easily the most sensational gathering of like minded activists, researchers, lawyers, students, and politicians I could have ever hoped to attend. From beginning to end I felt that this movement was not only alive but vitalized and thriving. I need to emphasize how encouraging and powerful this experience was. This change is happening now, and we are engulfed completely in the fluctuating current of its unfolding.

We all arrived in San Francisco on Thursday March 11th. We were excited to explore the city, meet people, and see what the conference had in store. We didn't know what was waiting for us.

On Friday I took a tour with many of my fellow students and colleagues to the Oaksterdam district of Oakland just outside San Francisco. We were there to visit Oaksterdam University – which teaches the cultivation of medical marijuana plants as a course of study. All of my expectations were surpassed as we entered this place.

The university is split between a few buildings in the district, all within 2 blocks or so of one another. It is well maintained and operated by very knowledgeable and passionate people. The construction of the main building is very simple, with a large lecture hall and a horticulture lab as well as the usual office rooms on the lower level. It was all very professional and clean as one would expect of any educational institution.

When I walked into the horticulture lab my jaw hit the floor. They were growing some of the most beautiful, largest, well taken care of plants I have ever seen. Not only this, but there was such an incredible number of the plants – over 4 dozen by my guess. I don’t even know how much smoke-able marijuana that would yield, but it’s a seriously large quantity by anyone’s standard.

So of course I had to figure out how this was done so flagrantly but kept completely legal at the same time. I had visions of the DEA swinging by ropes from helicopters and smashing through the windows as we walked around. Apparently it’s operated under the same conditions as a dispensary anywhere else. A group of patients and caregivers who are legally allowed to grow marijuana under the current state legislation get together and form a collective. The exact names of the laws and fine print details evade me, but I will link to their website at the end of the article if you would like to do your own research.

We visited a few of the coffee shops and got a little bit of background information about their impact on the area. Currently the city of Oakland allows 4 coffee shops/dispensaries to exist by permit. In the past there were as many as 16, but the others were shut down because of this policy. Even with only these 4 however, an economic rejuvenation has taken place in the Oaksterdam district. Not only are the coffee shops themselves successful, but they stimulate other businesses such as restaurants and shops of various sorts. From what I understand this part of town was quite run down and unseemly to hang around before Mary Jane moved into the neighborhood.

Although marijuana is not technically legalized for casual use by anyone, current legislative policy in the city of Oakland prioritizes enforcement of marijuana laws below minor offenses such as jaywalking. Under this circumstance there are establishments that sell marijuana for casual use to persons over the age of 21.

On this microscopic scale, we have clear evidence that drug policy reform not only allowed the effective treatment of people with a wide variety of ailments, but also breathed new life into a struggling economy by building a university, opening businesses, and drawing in tourists such as myself. This place is the absolute cutting edge of a new drug policy that envisions scientifically proven beneficial substances as a tool for the alleviation of common suffering and reinvigoration of dilapidated communities.

This is so huge for the reform movement. This is proof that, at least on some scale, a near analogue to the Amsterdam model of marijuana policy works in America. I am so tired of hearing people talk about cultural incompatibility with marijuana use as opposed to alcohol. I’m going to say it again to let you know how juiced I am. THE. MODEL. WORKS.

“You mean they aren’t all a bunch of schizophrenic nut bags robbing each other and committing acts of adultery in the missionary position?”

“Not at all Uncle Sam, hell they just pay taxes and listen to music that tells them not to pay their taxes now!”

We also got to see a presentation on what is undoubtedly the next step in drug policy reform in California. There was a man whose name I cannot recall speaking on behalf of the tax and regulate initiative which will hopefully be on the ballot this fall. They plan on making marijuana legal for all adults age 21 and over for casual use. They projected that the tax revenue could be as much as 1.2 billion dollars alone, not to mention that this would facilitate the success of dispensaries all over the state and invoke all the peripheral economic benefits that go along with this flourishing.

The day kept rolling along and we were treated to a few incredible speakers before the first part of Congress began. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the drug policy alliance, gave an especially moving speech. Afterwards a few resolutions were put before the voting representatives, but none of the resolutions were revolutionary exactly and seemed to be more mincing words than anything else. The candidates for the board of directors presented themselves and gave introductory speeches one by one, and this closed the day’s events at the conference.

Day two was devoted to “drug war education” which entailed many speakers talking about a variety of the aspects of the drug war. Ethan took the stage again to fire everyone up (which he did with much success). Some of the staff repaid him in kind with a birthday wish video, and all of us students were more than happy to sing to him in a glorious cacophony on his special day. Paul Armentano of NORML, Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access, and Aaron Smith of the Marijuana Policy Project all spoke as well.

Now at this point there were several panel discussions for much of the day. I first went to a panel titled “Could psychedelics become accepted medicine?”. Three speakers sat on the panel, Rick Doblin of the Multi-disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Matt Baggot of UC Berkeley, and Alicia Danforth of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. They each spoke passionately and informatively about their research and their field of study. Rick Doblin especially captured my attention. His organization, MAPS, has been conducting research with mdma to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder with quite a bit of success. Alicia spoke of her research regarding end of life therapy with terminal patients in order to soothe their anxieties. I feel that this was probably the most ground breaking panel of any I attended.

After panels were over with, we got to see California Representative Tom Ammiano talk about marijuana legislation in the state and what it was like to be on the inside of things. His outlook was very optimistic if he did stress the difficulty he faced in persuading other state congress members to jump on the bandwagon.

The party and awards ceremony thrown that night was out of this world. Everyone had a great time getting together and cutting loose a bit. The bands, Pandacon and Roots of Creation, were pretty awesome and lots of people, including myself, danced their asses off.

One of the most unexpected moments at the conference struck when everyone representing the Kent State chapter was called up on stage to win the outstanding chapter award. It felt great to receive that sort of recognition - we were and still are so happy to have that honor.

The next day was filled with workshops regarding the development of different advocacy skills, and it was all really informative. I feel like I’m dragging this article out now so I’ll leave specifics alone.

So all in all the trip was a major jump off point to get a better picture of what this movement really looks like and understand the impact we could all have working as a concerted whole. Hope you guys enjoyed the article and that you can make it out next year if you didn’t go.

To all my fellow ssdper’s: I love you all so much and I hope your lives are filled with ssdpness. :)

Maps Website:
Oaksterdam University:
California Tax and Regulate Initiative:
SSDP official website:

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