Madison SSDP holds drug conference

The University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) of Madison, Wisconsin convened a special weekend conference April 28-29 in their city which included academics, writers, activists and children of drug war parents. The conference was the first sanctioned gathering of drug policy reformers on campus. The somewhat ponderous theme called "Illuminating Reality: Social, Intellectual, Economic and Faith Based Approaches to the War on Drugs in the 21st Century" was made simple and elegant from the start.

Tomika Gates of Federal Forum from St. Paul, Minnesota combined word and song into emotions of sorrow and hope, relating matter-of-factly the formidable challenge of raising her siblings while their mother served a lengthy drug sentence. Last August at the Philadelphia Shadow Convention, Tomika and other young African-Americans performed similarly for a reform audience brought to tears by their plain-spoken poems and songs.

Author Mike Gray came to Madison to dispel drug war myths. Gray makes a habit of dispelling myths, as he did about nuclear power in his 1982 Academy Award-winning screenplay "The China Syndrome." In 1992, when he started research on "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out," he was skeptical about the drug information released by the federal government. Although Gray had little use for the war on drugs beforehand, researching his book was eye opening, he told Samara Kalk of Madison's Capital Times.

When he started looking into the dangers of drug use, Gray had an awakening, he told a group of about 75 students. For instance, he learned that heroin is only addictive for 10 percent of people who try it. "Absolutely everything I knew or thought I knew about drugs was totally bogus. Once you understand you can't trust your government, it opens up all channels of inquiry."

Gray was the keynote speaker for the conference. "Student groups such as SSDP are central to reforming drug policy," said Gray. "Your organization has the potential to assist in turning this stupid process around."

Gray repeatedly slammed former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, accusing the General of irresponsibility for major drug misinformation. "There is no evidence for the other side, not a statistic," he told students. Gray cited the success of the Netherlands in decriminalizing some drugs: The rate of addiction in Holland is one-third of what it is in the United States. Marijuana is used 30 percent less there than it is in the United States, continued Gray. Plus, the average age of a heroin addict is getting older in Holland. In 1980 the average age was 25 in both countries. Now it's 36 in the Netherlands and 19 in the United States.

Gray said the drug war is dissolving the country. Yet he was optimistic, saying marijuana is the pivotal issue in drug reform and medical marijuana is the front line. "We are winning daily," he told Kalk.

A prominent Madison drug war activist, Ben Masel, referred to Gray's background in energy issues. "If we were to move our marijuana operations out of the closets and into the sunlight, could we solve California's energy problem?" he asked aloud with sweet sarcasm.

In one weekend panel discussion moderated by Wisconsin Professor Donald Downs, four religious leaders talked about their unease with the war on drugs. "Our drug policy is a replay of Alcohol Prohibition, which was an utter failure. Drug policies are failing in the same ways," said Cecil Findley, a retired United Methodist pastor who serves part time on campus.

"The drug war involves discriminatory policing, the demonization of users and relentless posturing and grandstanding by politicians," Findley told his audience. "Where is the emphasis on treatment and education? We are filling up our prisons with drug users," he lamented.

Mary Ann Macklin of the First Unitarian Society of Madison also urged compassion. "We have lost the art of being together, of being a community," she said.

Jenny Baumgardner of Eau Claire told Kalk she learned a lot from the two-day conference.
"It affects everyone. They call it a war on drugs but it is really a war on families, where young women are being sent to jail and prison - and 80 percent of them are mothers," she said.

SSDP organizer Jacob Davis and other Madison students deserve appreciation for the good work done to pull off this first-ever Conference. Jacob told me the new SSDP contact person for the fall semester at the Madison campus will be Adam Hupp. His email is:

SSDP organized a town hall meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico last May to address strategies for repealing the Higher Education Act provision that denies student loans to those persons convicted of a drug offense.

Emmett Callahan, SSDP and TNC

Shawn Heller, SSDP

Dave Borden, DRCNet and Steve Bunch, Drug Policy forum of New Mexico

Wava Porter speaking at SSDP town hall meeting, Steve Bunch also in photo