I was 18 years old, and it was the night before classes began for my second semester as a freshman at the University of Maryland. I was smoking a joint alone in my dorm room to relax before I went to bed when I heard a knock at the door. Without a peephole to see who it was, nor the knowledge of how to protect my rights during a police encounter, I opened up the door to find 3 police officers on the other side. Scared and surprised, I watched as they barged past me into my room, demanding that I tell them where the marijuana was. In an effort to cooperate, I gave them everything I had: a glass pipe and less than half a gram of marijuana. The officers proceeded to turn my room upside down searching for anything else I might be hiding, finding nothing during the seemingly unending minute search.
My anxiety overcame me and after briefly fainting, I woke up handcuffed to my desk chair. The officers then paraded me out of my room in front of dozens of my fellow students and took me to the nearby town of Hyattsville in Prince George’s county. The officers laughed at me as I cried, making fun of the “little college girl who was upset because she got caught with pot.” When they escorted me to get my fingerprints and mugshot taken, I was put in five-point restraints, with cuffs and chains around my ankles, wrists, and waist.
I spent the next 9 hours in a cell with a woman who was clearly in crisis, possibly experiencing withdrawal or mental illness and not receiving the help she so clearly needed. When I was released the next day, I had no phone and no wallet, so I walked across the street to a gas station and asked the attendant which way it was back to the University of Maryland campus. Still in my pajamas (in January), I walked a few miles back to my dorm building. There, I was met with a notice of suspension which I traded for two years of mandatory drug testing twice a week, and a notification informing me I had to move out of the dorms within 48 hours.
I said to myself, “This is never going to happen to anyone else, if I have anything to say about it.” I was determined to do absolutely everything in my power to make sure that no one was ever treated like that again. I had never been in trouble for anything before. I had straight A’s and was involved in several honor societies; so to say that this was a new experience for me would be an understatement. Not knowing where else to turn, I contacted the leaders of UMD Students for Sensible Drug Policy & NORML, who immediately came to my rescue. They did everything they could to help me, providing much needed emotional support while helping me to find an attorney and navigate the school judicial process. Members of SSDP and NORML made me understand I was part of something bigger, not simply treating me as a pitiful young girl overreacting to a relatively minor run-in with the law.
They helped me recognize how fortunate I was that my experience was so mild, especially after learning what others had been through. I wanted to learn more about how the drug war impacted others, and couldn’t stop seeking more and more information on the topic. The more I read, the more outraged I was, and the more I realized how diverse and widespread the damage being done by these drug policies had become. Thankfully, I was already connected to SSDP & NORML, who provided a perfect outlet to take action to fight against these injustices.
Unfortunately, I’m fully aware of how mild this experience may seem in comparison to people who have been incarcerated, lost custody of their children, been treated like criminals for using their medicine, been denied job and education opportunities, or who have experienced far more severe consequences as victims of the war on drugs. Regardless, this experience was very traumatizing for a young, relatively sheltered woman just learning how to navigate the world on her own. It felt incredibly traumatizing and disorienting, and I know too well that’s a feeling shared by everyone subjected to the criminal side of the drug war.
After I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2009, I got my dream job when I was hired as an Outreach Director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, DC. Today I am the Deputy Director, and still love my work as much as I did the very first day. It’s so fulfilling being able to work for and with students who want to make a difference in the world by advocating for alternatives to drug prohibition. These young people are some of the most inspiring, enthusiastic, intelligent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Knowing that SSDPers are the future of drug policy reform, I’ve never been more confident that we can and will succeed in ending the harm caused by the current draconian system of fear and punishment imposed by the United States’ failed war on drugs.