Julian Hodge ’17 and Sean Cutler ’19 – Our Experience with Leading Decriminalize Santa Cruz

Editor Note: University of California Santa Cruz SSDP plans to utilize the connections they fostered with politicians, advocates, and community members during the Decrim Santa Cruz campaign to ultimately push for the decriminalization of all drugs. To read more about SSDP’s stance on limited drug legalization, please read our policy position document.

Written by Julian Hodge ‘17 and Sean Cutler ‘19, University of California Santa Cruz Chapter Leaders

As soon as Denver and Oakland passed their legislation deprioritizing enforcement of possession of varying amounts of entheogenic plants and fungi (often conflated with decriminalization in the press, but it has its differences), we both, as SSDP chapter leaders, initiated our own deprioritization efforts. Six hours after the original idea, we published our social media pages and messaged each of our seven city council members.

One week later, we met with a councilmember supportive of the issue. During this meeting, Sean met Athonia Cappelli, Santa Cruz DJ and Decriminalize Nature collaborator, who became our partner on this project. Two weeks after that, Julian reconnected with a seasoned Santa Cruz city activist while speaking at a dispensary event, who ended up being a key player in planning our campaign with us.

Six months since starting this campaign, we nearly have our victory in hand. Students (who make up the majority of the campaign team) have learned during this experience how to professionally and effectively speak with people in power, and how to resolve conflicts among passionate coalition members. Julian and Sean, first-time leaders of a campaign this size, learned how to motivate over 2 dozen political novices to efficiently organize themselves into a coalition capable of recovering our cognitive liberty and bodily autonomy.

Speaking with People in Power

Most of the group members cut their teeth in lobbying in the process of representing Decriminalize Santa Cruz at meetings with powerful local officials. Julian utilized their ample lobbying experience by advising members on how to dress, what to say, what not to say, and more.

The most regrettably memorable experience occurred when Sean and Julian met with Santa Cruz Police Chief Andrew Mills in mid-July. Sean took the lead and ended up learning the specific tone one must use with people in power. Toward the end of the meeting, Chief Mills expressed his frustration with Sean’s accusatory and pretentious tone, and Julian jumped in to thank him for his feedback and acknowledged that Sean’s inexperience caused him to be overly harsh.

Ultimately, we persuaded Chief Mills to diminish his reluctance. In a recent interview about our resolution, when asked if he thought this was a good idea, he providentially said, “sometimes things change, and sometimes it’s for the better.”

Luckily, all meetings after that one went smoothly as we learned from our mistakes. On November 12th, during the first reading of our resolution by City Council, SSDP member Daisy described the life-changing clarity that can result from psychedelic substance use, recounting how psilocybin mushroom usage helped her overcome PTSD, severe depression, and anxiety. Immediately after Daisy, another member, Jackie, spoke about her personal revelations resulting from her personal use of psilocybin mushrooms to successfully deal with painful suicidal thoughts and lingering depression. As a result of lobbying and testifying, we learned that expressively discussing personal issues with political representatives is an effective method to exercise the political leverage that we, as students, possess.

Conflict Resolution

Since we gathered a diverse group of people to support our resolution, conflict naturally arose from ideological disagreements. Such disagreements arose in a meeting with Mayor Martine Watkins, but the group was able to come to a compromise by focusing on the intentions of the bill.

We also disagreed about the scope of our bill.

Our current legislation mostly replicates the resolution passed by Oakland. At its most radical, our ordinance makes the usage, possession, cultivation, and distribution of all psychoactive plants and fungi listed in the Controlled Substances Act lowest level priority for law enforcement.

Half of our support system encouraged us to go farther with our legislation than Oakland had. Our experienced mentors expressed that, by only making entheogens lowest level priority for law enforcement, we would irresponsibly continue stigmatizing all psychoactive substances not included in the resolution, such as coca leaves and poppy plants. We personally believe all drugs/plants/fungi/substances should be decriminalized, so we felt as if we were morally obligated to advocate for all drugs being decriminalized.

However, the other half of our supporters cautioned us that with the recall of two Santa Cruz City Councilmembers occurring simultaneously to our efforts, recallers would use the entheogen legislation to paint the two embattled councilmembers as irresponsible drug use advocates. Decriminalize Nature Oakland members, including Athonia, also voiced concern that moving too quickly on entheogen deprioritization in Santa Cruz might harm the now nationwide Decriminalize Nature movement by agitating drug war-minded citizens to the point of forming organized opposition.

After thoughtful consultation between Vice-Mayor Justin Cummings and our coalition, we decided to neither pursue passing an ordinance (which is more legally binding) nor decriminalize substances not included in the Oakland bill. However, Cummings favorably suggested that we could write and pass a binding ordinance in the spring after this resolution passed.