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Why Students Hold Key to Ending Marijuana Prohibition

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The following speech was given by NORML’s Deputy Director before nearly 500 attendees on Saturday, March 13, at the opening plenary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s 11th International Conference, at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. To read full coverage of the conference, please see DRCNet’s report here.

My name is Paul Armentano and I’m the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and I’m the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? Max, Amber, Stacia and the many good folks at SSDP invited me to come here today to talk to you about how and why students have a vital role to play in ending marijuana prohibition.

First let’s talk about the “why”: self-preservation. The federal government has declared war on you.

Since 1965 law enforcement in this country have arrested over 20 million people for marijuana offenses.  But when you take a closer look at who is actually arrested you find that, for the most part, it isn’t the folks sitting on this panel; it’s all of you sitting out there – it’s young people.

In short – the so-called ‘war’ on marijuana is really a war on youth.

According to a 2005 study commissioned by the NORML Foundation, 74 percent of the 800,000 or so Americans busted for pot each year are under age 30, and one out of four are age 18 or younger.  That’s nearly half a million young people at risk of losing their school loans, or being saddled with a lifelong criminal record at a time when they are just entering the workforce.   We’re talking about an entire generation – and that’s you out there – that has been alienated to believe that the police and their civic leaders are instruments of their oppression rather than their protection.

And the sad fact is: you’re right!

The question is: What are you going to do about it?

If we’re going to finally end this 70+ year failed public policy known as marijuana prohibition, then we need students to play a lead role.  Obviously those of you in this room have already taken a critical first step in leading this charge by joining SSDP and attending this conference.  But there’s a lot more to be done and there’s a lot more that you can do.

I believe that it was Ghandi who demanded that those who are oppressed be a part of there own liberation, and marijuana prohibition is no different.  I want you to look around you because it’s you all who will ultimately bring about an end to prohibition.

And here’s how you start, and it’s really, really simple suggestion. Start talking to others about the need to end marijuana prohibition. Start talking about how this policy disproportionately and adversely impacts youth. Start discussing about how this policy limits young people’s opportunities at economic and academic success, and has repercussions that adversely affect people for the rest of their lives.

Start talking about how the war on weed endangers young people’s health and safety because it enables teens to have easier access to pot than to legal, age-restricted intoxicants like alcohol and tobacco.  Talk about how prohibition forces young people to interact and befriend pushers of other illegal, more dangerous drugs.  Talk about how prohibition compels young people dismiss the educational messages they receive pertaining to the potential health risks posed by the use of ‘hard drugs’ and prescription pharmaceuticals because they say: “If they lied to me about pot, why wouldn’t they be lying to me about everything else too.”

Most importantly, talk about how criminal prohibition is far more likely to result in having all of you sitting in this room struggling to get over a lifelong criminal conviction than it is in any way going to discourage you or your friends from trying pot.

And when I say ‘talk about it,’ that’s exactly what I mean – TALK.  But talk to those who know you – your family, your friends, your parents, your neighbors, your professors, your faculty advisers. These are the people who you have built in credibility with. These are the people who are most likely to share and act upon your concerns because they care about you.  They care about what you think, and they actually care about what happens to you.

(You know it’s funny, so often I hear activists talk about how they want to spread the word by going out on some street-corner and handing out leaflets to strangers. Or they want to engage in debates with some paid prohibitionist, as if by providing he or she with the facts about marijuana will somehow change his or her position.  Or they want to post messages on some anti-drug website. Big deal. Talking to strangers is easy; it’s talking to people you know that’s hard. But it’s talking to people you know that is ultimately going to make a difference.)

So after you’re done talking about the evils of the drug war with your friends, family, and faculty – and encouraging them to begin engaging in this conversation as well – then it’s time to move the discussion to those who can shape public opinion and policy: the editors at your school paper, the leaders in your student government, your city council, your mayor, you state elected officials.  Talk to these folks, and keep talking to these folks.  And if they won’t listen to you then become one of them.  Join the school paper; run for student government; run for city council. If not you, then who?

Here’s something else I want you to do to help bring about an end to marijuana prohibition. There’s something I want you all to say when you are engaging in your outreach efforts, and that is this: NOT IN MY NAME.

You know, when those who support marijuana prohibition are forced to defend it, they do so by saying that it’s all about you: it’s all about protecting and providing for the best interest of young people.  You know, sort of like “we have to destroy the village in order to to save it.”

It’s time for all of you in this room to stop being the scapegoats for the abuses and the excesses of drug war. It’s time to say: enough! We don’t want your criminal policies; we never asked for your criminal policies; and we’re tired of having our good names be used to support your failed drug war.  The war on marijuana isn’t saving us; it’s harming us, and we demand that it comes to end before it destroys another generations the same way it has destroyed ours.

Okay, so that’s the easy part – here’s the hard part.  If students – and I’m talking about you guys here, and I’m also talking about all of your friends and colleagues who aren’t here – really are going to be the game-changers in this battle, this fight that all of us sitting up here have been waging for far too long already, then we need for you guys to take a pledge:

Don’t let your activism be a phase in your life; make it a part of your life.

When I graduated college in 1994 there was no SSDP; there was no ASA. There barely was an MPP.  There was the DPA – with one office a handful of employees.  There was no LEAP, no SAFER; no frankly there was no professional movement. Since then the landscape has changed monumentally.

Today, there are now dozens of organizations working on drug policy reform, and with that, dozens of job opportunities for you to get involved and stay involved in marijuana policy after you graduate college.  So I give you a challenge: You really want to end the drug war? Consider making drug policy your career choice. You can start right now by applying for an internship at NORML or a fellowship at SSDP.  Many of this movement’s current leaders started out this way, Kris Krane, Mason Tvert, Tom Angel, Stacia Cosner, Micah Daigle, and many others.  They did it, and you can too.

Finally, even if you don’t wish to pursue marijuana law reform as a career, I encourage you to stay active in the movement.  Between the Internet, podcasts, list-servs, social networking sites like Facebook, you now have access to unparalleled quantities of drug-law reform information in real time.  Just this past week NORML launched its own Iphone app.

In other words, it is now easier than ever to stay plugged in to your networks and continue to educate yourself and your friends about drug policy reform. Check out NORML’s daily podcast, the Audio Stash, for the latest breaking news, or check out NORML’s capwiz page to instantly learn about upcoming state and federal votes in legislation that affects us all. And use what you learn to continue to move this conversation forward.

The bottom line: all of you in this room have the power to change these laws, and today you have an unprecedented opportunity to do so. So get out there and do it!


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