The University of Colorado Law School is SSDP’s newest chapter! I spoke with chapter President Rachelle Yeung and Vice President Kevin Cheney about their experience so far and their vision for the chapter moving forward;
How did you hear about SSDP?
Kevin: I heard about SSDP back in 2008 when I was working on my thesis concerning drug policy in the United States. I came across the SSDP website during the course of my research.
Rachelle: I had been working with the Orange County chapter of NORML (“OC NORML”) in California throughout college, and ended up on the emailing lists for a variety of drug policy advocacy groups. I signed up for the SSDP list through an action alert and I’ve been in the loop ever since!
Why did you want to get involved/what made you decide to start a chapter?
Kevin: I decided I wanted to get involved after graduating from the University of Hawaii and moving to Colorado. My older brother was an attorney specializing in aiding medical marijuana businesses with legal paperwork and business organization. As someone who had advocated for the liberalization of drug laws since I was in high school, working in this industry helped turn my words into actions. After I was accepted into the University of Colorado’s Law School I decided a drug policy group would be a great addition to the law school campus. Then Kevin entered CU Law in Fall 2011, and has been very vocal about his position on drug law reform from the get-go. I approached him in January about forming a drug policy group, either under NORML or as an independent, local group, but he suggested Students for Sensible Drug Policy. The rest is history…
Rachelle: I had wanted to start a drug policy advocacy group at CU Law since I began here in Fall 2010 to continue the work I had been doing with OC NORML and to learn more about the local issues. However, from casual conversations with friends, it didn’t seem like there was much support for such a group. The amount of work in the first semester moved these plans to the back burner, but lucky for me, Rachelle approached me about starting a chapter a few months ago and we have been working hard at making an awesome SSDP chapter ever since.
What has the reception been like so far?
Kevin: The reception so far has been great. We had over 25 people show up for our first meeting and expect that many or more at future meetings. We quickly found a faculty sponsor and have been moving forward ever since. Our student government unanimously approved our request to be an official student group. As far as the reception from the larger community, we have received two sponsorships from Cheeba Hut and Green Dream Health Services to help fund our chapter. Living in Boulder, we find that most people support our position and are happy to help in any way possible.
Rachelle: Support from professors and administration has been unequivocal; our faculty advisor, Ann, is the director of the Criminal Defense Clinic and has been incredibly eager to help us get our chapter off of the ground. She has been able to put us in touch with many supportive lawyers and advocates in the area. I met with our Dean of Students before we even became an official group and she agreed to help fund our trip to the 2012 International Conference right here in Colorado! We go to a fairly liberal law school in a fairly liberal city, so the general acceptance of our cause wasn’t that surprising, but the lack of bureaucratic roadblocks has really been a blessing. The fact that Kevin and I are both already leaders within the law school – he is the 1L Class Vice-President, and I am the Secretary for the Student Bar Association – has probably contributed to the legitimacy and credibility of our chapter. When we presented our proposal to form a chapter of SSDP to the SBA, we won approval almost unanimously. Probably the most irritating feedback we have gotten has been from some of our peers, who invariably refer to us as “the pot smoking club” and “slacker hippie stoners.” Most of it is just teasing, but I hate that that’s the image we have to start with (the “rebuttable presumption,” if you will), and prove wrong.
What are some of the things you have planned or want to plan for this semester and next fall?
Kevin: Our plans for this semester include bringing in Brain Vicente from Sensible Colorado, bringing over 6 students to the International SSDP conference in late March, and having a guest speaker on DUI-D laws. Over the summer and next fall we hope to pivot our focus from educating students to outright activism surrounding the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act which will be on the ballot in Colorado in 2012.
Rachelle: Our first meeting, on Feb. 16, was an outstanding success with an attendance of about 25 students! We had lunch sponsored by a local dispensary, Green Dream Health Services, and Kevin’s brother, a CU Law alum, came to speak about his experience in the industry. Next Thursday, March 8, Brian Vicente and Christian Sederberg of Sensible Colorado will speak at another lunch lecture, this time sponsored by Cheba Hut. We hope to hold one more general meeting before the National Conference, with the intent of inviting leaders from other chapters who arrive early for the conference to join us. The future of DUI-D laws in the legislature will become an important focal point for the rest of the semester. Specifically, we will be inviting Lenny Frieling, a local criminal defense attorney and lifetime member of NORML, to come educate us about specific DUI-D prosecution strategies in Boulder, the erroneous (or lack of) science relied upon by local prosecutors, and how to avoid conviction of unfair DUI-D charges. Finally, we will be joining CU Law’s Federalist Society on April 19 in hearing from George Liebmann, who believes that drug policy should be the sole jurisdiction of States, rather than the federal government.
For next semester, we will be collaborating with CU Law’s ACLU and National Lawyer’s Guild chapters in hosting Michelle Alexander, author of the “The New Jim Crow,” to speak. Long-term, we really want to increase academic interest in drug policy issues: we are working on developing a Drug Law and Policy class or clinic, and encouraging our members to research and write law review articles on drug policy.
What is the most challenging part of your experience starting/running the chapter so far?
Kevin: Everything so far has been great and honestly we have not had too many problems.
Rachelle: The biggest challenge so far is finding the time to do all the things we want to do! But honestly, it feels like starting this chapter has been ALL reward. I have been awed with the general amount of support we have received. It’s been especially awesome to connect with students of such varied backgrounds and perspectives, who all agree on one thing: the current War on Drugs is not working. We have actually been thanked for taking initiative on this. Sadly, many law students – friends of mine who I KNOW are supportive – are still concerned about joining SSDP, worrying about potential professional repercussions. It will be a challenge to fight that taboo, and make these students more comfortable with what we do, but I think establishing this chapter and not being ashamed of it has been an important first step.
What is the most rewarding part?
Kevin: The most rewarding part has been to see the wide ranging support from students who had never expressed any interest in the subject before. I am very excited to see how our group can grow in the coming months.
What are you most excited about for your chapter/school/state/region/ssdp/drug policy right now? ex: Colorado legalizing in 2012, advocating for policy change at Colorado Law, etc.
Kevin: The most exciting thing right now in my opinion is definitely the chance to help legalize marijuana in Colorado this November. Our group will do everything it can to make the effort successful.
Rachelle: I’m most excited to be a part of the 2012 marijuana legalization initiative!
What is your vision for Colorado Law SSDP? Where do you see your chapter in a year? in 4 or 5 years?
Kevin: My vision for CU Law SSDP would be its continued presence on campus and in the community. I would love to come back in 5 years to find SSDP still hard at work bringing excellent speakers to campus to increase education regarding drug policy. With any luck ,marijuana will already be legal in Colorado in 5 years, so I would hope CU-Law’s SSDP would have moved on and embraced the next big drug policy project of the time.
Rachelle: Colorado is on the progressive edge of drug policy reform, and I would love to see the state’s flagship law school take a more active role in developing that policy. I want to see our members seriously considering drug policy advocacy a legitimate career goal, and graduating and becoming the legislators or advisors who write the new laws. I want to see any law student who is supportive of drug law reform not be afraid to publicly say so.