Written by Emma Tuttleman-Kriegler, Vice President of Tulane Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
On June 16th, 2013, I brought a simple message to Louisiana’s Senators and Representatives: Let states decide. Alongside more than 50 students from 22 different SSDP chapters, I called on our nation’s elected officials to respect states’ rights and end federal marijuana prohibition.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s (SSDP) Federal Marijuana Lobby Day is an annual meeting in Washington DC, that gives college and high school students a voice in the movement to end the federal prohibition of marijuana. By removing federal enforcement interference, states can decide to regulate marijuana similarly to how they regulate alcohol.
I prepared as much as I could before arriving in DC. I researched the drug policy voting records of Congressmen Cedric Richmond and Steve Scalise, and Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter. What I found on both sides, democrat and republican, was not inspiring. If their previous records weren’t flat-out against drug policy reform, they didn’t want to get involved.
But Aaron Houston, Executive Director of SSDP, reminded me on the Pre-Lobby Training Day that I was the expert on marijuana policy reform.
I know that the current status of federal prohibition has failed to keep marijuana out of the hands of teenagers. I know that it has damaged the futures of some of my straight-A university classmates. I know that you don’t have to travel far to see New Orleans families who are trapped in the cycle of incarceration and disenfranchisement for simple marijuana possession.
Houston reminded me that it was my job to get members of Congress to see that the war on drugs isn’t working; they aren’t aware of bills in other states that have already broken down barriers to policy reform. Therefore, my job was to present three existing pieces of legislation (HR 499, HR 1523, LA HB 103) calling for the end of federal prohibition of marijuana. On my own accord, I revisited a formerly rejected Louisiana bill, which aimed to fine offenders rather than impose lengthy prison sentences for marijuana possession.
Meeting with Representatives and their staffers
I dropped off my SSDP-provided educational materials with Democratic Congressman Richmond’s Legislative Director Fabrice Coles, who was unavailable to meet that day. When I followed up with her via email, her response was,
“Congressman Richmond shares your thoughts that the nature of our drug war needs a rethink. Your points are well taken and we are looking at that legislation presently. Please keep in touch.”
I thanked her for her time, planning on following up with news about Louisiana’s alarming drug-related incarceration rates. I moved on to my meeting with John Seale, the Legislative Assistant to Congressman Steve Scalise. Congressman Scalise is the representative for Louisiana’s First District where Tulane University and the surrounding Uptown neighborhoods are located. I anticipated that Scalise, a Republican and historically conservative anti drug proponent, would be a difficult sell. But Seale was new to Scalise’s team and open to hearing about how current marijuana policy reform reallocates political power back in the hands of states. This, I learned, is called “state sovereignty” and is a quietly growing movement among house members to stop the uncontrolled expansion of federal power. Seale expressed that although marijuana is a controversial issue among conservative First District voters, Scalise is interested in this movement, especially where ineffective and wasteful government spending is concerned. Spending such as the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which uses over $100 million of taxpayer’s dollars annually, and has been shown to be nothing more than an expensive failure. An analysis conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that the National Media Campaign not only failed to reduce teen drug use, but actually correlated with an increase in drug use. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the campaign’s excessive spending and lack of results. Seale said he would encourage Scalise to consider reducing funding for the Donec interdum Media Campaign in the fiscal year 2014 budget.
Next was my meeting with the Legislative Correspondent to Senator Mary Landrieu, Andrew Holleman. Holleman is an enthusiastic recent graduate of University of Louisiana at Lafayette who was excited to hear about what we’re doing. He says that Landrieu, Democrat, has historically taken a “hands-off” approach to marijuana bills. But since our meeting, she has co-written a bill that addresses youth delinquency and criminal street gang activity through evidence-based practices. The Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (PROMISE Act) of July 2013 calls on the findings of Dr. Peter Scharf of Tulane’s Criminology Department to view drugs as a public health concern rather than a criminal one. Since Landrieu has advocated keeping adolescents out of the system, I discussed with Holleman Louisiana’s House Bill 103, which reduces criminal penalties and prohibits the applicability of the Habitual Offender Law relative to marijuana possession. This means that those already convicted of possession would be able to petition the court to reconsider their sentences.
Although it failed on the Senate floor in June, HB 103 is a crucial step forward in repairing the lives destroyed by Louisiana’s draconian drug penalties. My last meeting was with the Legislative Correspondent to Republican Senator David Vitter, Kate Laborde. Laborde wasn’t as keen to hear about marijuana policy reform because Vitter has supported prohibition across the board – prohibition of needle exchange and medical marijuana (1999) and increased support to border patrols to battle drugs and terrorism (2000). However, Laborde wasn’t aware that prohibition doesn’t keep drugs out of the hands of children – a regulated marketplace does. So my hope is that she will relay the message to Senator Vitter that if he wants to better protect our children and borders from drugs and terrorism, he should end the federal prohibition of marijuana; this would allow states to serve as laboratories for democracy and regulate marijuana for safe adult-use.
Yes we can!
I left the Capitol feeling inspired knowing that SSDP’s messages of sensible reform were heard; I was inspired to bring these messages back to my chapter members at Tulane. Already as the fall semester is under way, a number of historic announcements have shifted the status of national marijuana legalization. On August 29th, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that they wouldn’t interfere with Colorado and Washington’s decisions to regulate the production and distribution of recreational marijuana. On September 5th, an ACLU poll was released stating that 53 percent of Louisiana voters favor regulating marijuana and taxing its sales, and 59 percent oppose long-term prison sentences for possession. Despite these numbers, there is still a long way to go for statewide legalization in Louisiana. But returning power back to states and reducing the number of adolescents in the prison system are promising political strategies in this conservative state. As students, we should have honest conversations about drugs and drug policy.
As the first female Vice President of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Tulane, I hope I can inspire other students to end our nation’s war on drugs that has failed our generation and society.
Along with registering to vote in Louisiana this summer, I raised money to send more students to Washington, DC for SSDP’s second annual Federal Marijuana Day in 2014. If you are interested in getting involved with this movement or want to participate in next years lobby day, visit www.ssdptulane.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.