EL PASO — Interactions with the public and local officials were the most interesting. As I stated in my previous post, drug policy reform is a friendlier topic on a college campus setting. Once we stepped outside of UTEP and into a council meeting we were in positions where we needed to defend ourselves, but above all establish credibility. One mission of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is to put pressure on politicians to take note of the issue. We focused on our local government. This involved researching who our representatives were on both the local, state, and federal level. Government officials are very important because they can often open doors to opportunities and networks that would otherwise be closed.
These interactions with local politicians opened my eyes to how exactly El Paso works. Our mayor, along with the other mayoral candidates that have ran for the position this past May are truly businessmen devoted to a thriving El Paso economy. This results in decisions ultimately being about business and money. I also realized that the reluctance of the politicians to address the drug policy issue is a result of them wanting to be reelected. This process has harvested so much frustration because we have been very ill received by our Mayor. At the UTEP Mayoral Debate his exact words were, “you must understand the power of municipal government. The federal government tells us what to do.” It was right then and there that I realized our municipal government is a puppet for those on the top of the ladder. He stands behind his morals in his opposition to this issue. However, I can’t agree more with Phillippe Bourgois when he states that, “U.S. politicians furiously debate family values while multinational corporations establish global free-trade zones and unionized factory employment disappears as overseas sweatshops multiply.” (*) I am starting to realize that the reason politicians do not want to decriminalize marijuana and other drugs is because it is bad “business”. Industries like the private prison complex, pharmaceutical companies, and even chemical companies would lose out if something like marijuana were to be widely manufactured and distributed. If they really cared about their constituents they would take each and every issue seriously. Nevertheless, we were able to establish trust among a few City Representatives that relayed their assistance if need be.
Another way that we established trust through credibility was to host Law Enforcement against Prohibition speaker Terry Nelson at UTEP on April 30, 2009. It is one thing to hear a student testimony, but the reaffirmation from an individual who fought on the front lines of the drug war is priceless. It was during his presentation that students, community members, and City Reps were able to really get a look into the figures of how much money we are wasting and how much violence prohibition has actually caused.
From this event it is evident that in order to be taken seriously, we must bring the professionals in. A few media outlets caught sight of the event which was a great way to spread the message throughout El Paso. Hopefully when people hear SSDP they think of credible young minds wanting to make a change. So long as they refrain from seeing ABC-7’s broadcast of our rally outside city council on April 21st. This was another lessoned learned: be careful what kind of media attention we bring. They filmed us chanting and holding signs that said, “No more drug war”, but the broadcasters did not do a very good job in explaining why we called for a change in drug policy.
One of the most exciting experiences about the SSDP was being able to go to the regional conference that was held in Berkley, California. In California there are more progressive marijuana laws that Texas has yet to even dream about proposing. They are not the only ones in the United States either. States that have pushed for decriminalization of things like medical marijuana are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. I cannot stress the importance of being in and witnessing a place that has already gotten on the bandwagon with sensible drug policy. The main theme of the conference was how to extend rights to medical marijuana users and distributors and end the drug war. My questions however had to do with how to even start the legislative process of having medical marijuana in Texas. The answers centered on the need to keep going, lobbying, and pushing politicians to address this issue. This interaction among a different populous was an eye opener. It stressed the need for El Paso to be more vocal and active. SSDP-UTEP came back even more determined.
It is also worth noting that at the SSDP West Coast Regional Conference on April 25th-26th, 2009 there were many speakers that influenced how we approach our organizing in El Paso. One speaker that was very influential on establishing credibility with the media was Abel Habtegeorgis from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. This workshop taught the basics of media relations, developing talking points, how to write press releases, and get the media to our events. During the LEAP event that I described previously, we used the valuable information from our conference. We did a press release as well as a same day press release. As a result about four media outlets came to the presentation and SSDP made it on the news.
We had so many negative stereotypes put on us. To some people, no matter how much we explained our intentions and tried to redefine ourselves, we will always be people that just want to legalize drugs for our own benefit. Getting people to understand the issue is one thing, getting them to do something about it was another.
After starting this organization we feel so connected to the issue and its effects on El Paso. I feel that if SSDP had not taken the initiative to speak out against the Drug War and our reluctant politicians, this issue would have been dead a long time ago. From this project I now understand how City Council works, and how bills in the Texas legislature get passed or dropped. I am informed to who my representatives are and feel comfortable in expressing my content or discontent with their decisions. I feel very liberated because of it. All drug talk aside, I think getting involved with local politics is empowering to the civilian on so many levels. It is a freedom that I hope will awaken in the minds of other students and citizens of El Paso.
(*) Bourgois, Philippe. 2002. “Office Work and the Crack Alternative Among Puerto Rican Drug Dealers in East Harlem.” In Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, edited by George Gmelch and Walter P. Zenner, 316. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.