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EL PASO — Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an international organization of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities. This organization puts all its energy on awareness and education about our failed drug policies. We feel that the war on drugs, like any other war on an idea, is a failure. It is a waste of time, money, and lives. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoner population and the majority of those incarcerated are non-violent drug offenders. Not to mention that the United States has the highest usage of illegal drugs in the world as well. This past year we have witnessed thousands of deaths across the border as a result of drug cartels battling it out. Numerous politicians admit that the United States is a market for drugs, and many of those drugs come from Mexico. Not only that, but there is heavy gun running from the United States into Mexico.

This cyclical process of illegal trade is fueling violence, and many innocent people’s lives are being threatened. And since it is a border issue, it is an El Paso issue.  How do we stop this?  Money is power, and these cartels have much of it, so by legalizing drugs such as marijuana which is 70-90 percent of drugs trafficked and we can alleviate the flow of money. We can also unclog our courts of non-violent drug offenses, in 2007, 47.4 percent of the 1,841,182 total arrests for drug abuse violations were for marijuana, a total of 872,720. Of those, 775,137 people were arrested for marijuana possession alone.   Law Enforcement Against Prohibition representative Terry Nelson states that in order to reduce harm by drugs the government must legalize and regulate them. In our mission, we have come across some very open minded and determined people as well as politicians who do not want to tackle tough issues. City Council did not vote to have a discussion on the issue, so we had it on our own.

SSDP held meetings every Tuesday at 4:30 in the Liberal Arts building at UTEP.  UTEP was the ideal place to meet for everyone. Throughout the semester we held events across campus that included bake sales, contests, film screenings, and hosting speakers. One positive thing about doing an organization at UTEP is that students are able to utilize services for the organization. Using UTEP as the center of our organization holds many importances. First, it brings students together on campus. Another aspect of using UTEP as a learning research setting for a new student organization is that you build so many networks on campus and in the community. Throughout the process of going to meetings with faculty advisors, organizing events, SSDP meetings and city council meetings you meet people from an array of different parts of town coming together for the same issue.  Centralizing the organization around UTEP represents higher learning and student activism for the participants. We are all learning and working towards becoming scholars and professionals. To take national issues and concentrate on its effects locally allows us to gain a greater perspective of our actions. UTEP represents a challenge as well because there is not as much student activism, as say Berkley or NYU. That is not to say that there isn’t any at all, but there is no denying the sense of apathy among the majority of the student body.  This was something that we had to study and take apart. After all, the key to organizing is mobilizing,

The motivation for the UTEP SSDP Chapter came out of the El Paso City Council’s resolution and Mayors veto to discuss legalization of narcotics as a means to alleviate the violence in Juarez. We went to city council to speak on behalf of the override of the Mayor’s veto in order for discussion. That was our first real interaction with the public. As young people we aren’t taken any more serious than pot heads that want to legalize marijuana. At the meeting on January 16, 2009 almost 40 people went to speak to the council. The fair majority was over 40, and was not in support of the resolution, this included Mayor Cook. After that disappointment, we were contacted by the regional director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He commended us on our actions at the council meeting and suggested we start a SSDP chapter at UTEP. Thus began our outreach to the student community at UTEP. During our events, using participant observation, I definitely saw that age has a lot to do with a person’s acceptance of this issue. College students are more inclined to favor drug policy reform than their older counter parts, go figure. Again, I must not over generalize age and acceptance. One of our biggest supporters is not a college student, but an El Paso woman who was motivated to the cause by her father’s medical marijuana use.

From all the organizing that SSDP did within these few months there are a few concurrent themes during our interactions in meetings and in public. One was getting people aware and involved. A second theme that we focused on was being taken seriously not just by the public, but by politicians. And lastly, figuring out the system in which we must work with. By system I mean the system of government, representatives, and committee and understanding exactly how a bill gets proposed and/or rejected. This is an important theme because it is how SSDP will strategize and understand how to address the medical marijuana issue in Texas.

As stated above SSDP held quite a few events considering we finally got the ball moving at the beginning of March. Our first event was a student outreach tabling event.  The goal of our event was to get students to send emails to their state representatives in support of H.B. 164 which allows the distribution and use of medical marijuana in Texas and H.B. 902 which makes the penalty for possession a fine without arrest. Both have since died on the committee floor, never making it to be voted on. Four of us set up our laptops at the Union Breezeway. We had the page set up to where they would enter the information and send the email in less than a minute. We were very excited at how the students received us and our message, and how little opposition we got. People were generally inquisitive and for the most part agreeable. The issues that really caught their attention were the arrest and incarceration rates and the loss of financial aid for someone charged with a minor drug offense. From the testimonies that people gave during our tabling and student outreach, the issues stated previously hit very close to home for most students. At the end of the day we had more than 50 people send letters to their representatives.

We then had a more relaxed event to promote our group called, “The Special Brownie Cook Off: They’re special because you made them”.  It was a unanimous decision among SSDP members to play on the “pot head” stereotype, might as well get their attention while we can. We invited the campus to show off their signature brownie recipes and students would judge the contest for only a dollar donation. This was an incredible success. Students got cheap food, and we were able to hold them at our table long enough to engage in discussion and tell them about SSDP. A majority of the students were very inquisitive and asked us what our group was about. The question we always got was “so you guys want to legalize drugs?” With this issue those questions are inevitable. We used that question as an entry point to explain our stance on the drug war, and educate others about the reasons why we need to make a new policy.

In order for us to be received by students and the community we had to provide some sort of education. We held an event called the 4/20 Film Festival. April 20th is a celebrated day among Marijuana smokers so we used that familiarity to get people’s attention about this serious issue. And let us face it; people who smoke Marijuana are very interested in changing drug policy because they don’t want to go to jail for doing something they enjoy and find relief in. We showed two documentaries that had to do with Marijuana and the Drug War and then we showed a funny film about marijuana called Pineapple Express. This event was successful for two reasons. We had a large turnout of more than 20 people, and the majority of people watched Waiting to Inhale. It is a documentary about Medical Marijuana and the unethical detainment of users and producers of medicinal cannabis. This is the staple of our organization. There are a lot of people who could benefit from the treatments of medicinal marijuana, but in Texas there is no legislation that allows the distribution and consumption of it. With that, SSDP made medical marijuana one of the largest issues that we had to address.

To be continued… Next week: How SSDP was received by public and government officials .

Visit Drug War Facts to check the statistical information provided in this article.

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