My job makes me feel privileged. I’m the first International Liaison for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. My job enables me to travel outside the US, working with students and youth in other countries to set up SSDP chapters. It’s a great task which requires patience and perspicacity to find out what issues and ideas represent the interests of students outside the United States and who might want to form a chapter in their country and join an international youth network.
So far this year SSDP has sent me outside the United States on two occasions. In late August representatives from SSDP in the US and Colombia attended the Second Latin American Drug Policy Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As an organizer, I have to attend conferences to connect with people who might want to help SSDP. In Rio I found drug policy activists from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay who expressed interest in SSDP’s activities. Talking to the representatives of groups from these countries made me feel as though my task could know no limits. But I also know that fruitful organizing emerges from strategic decisionmaking. After four days in Rio, I knew that all of SSDP’s international organizing had to focus on Mexico, at least at first. It’s one of the most urgent and yet unacknowledged human rights disasters.
Mexico’s importance for anti-prohibitionists coincides with my job’s remit for a number of reasons. It goes without saying that the US’s southern neighbor is in the grips of devastating violence linked to state authoritarianism and drug dealing ferocity. And, since SSDP is a student and youth group, it pains to look at the death toll with an eye to the deaths of people under the age of twenty five. In Northern Mexican states like Sonora, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas the death rate for this group has not just doubled or tripled it has soared. Students have on several occasions been killed by government forces on their campus. An awareness of this situation helped me understand just where students fit in terms of government policy towards their protection, or at least the denial of their protection, even on college campuses that are meant to be autonomous of government intervention — even down to not allowing police forces to enter the university precincts.
Mexico is important, too, because some of its students — mostly in the capital’s public universities — form a hard core of anti-prohibitionist consumers. They are sensitized to the way in which they are treated, even as part of a legal scenario that includes decriminalization for small amounts of other drugs. Many students who consume drugs reported ways in which they were treated by authoritarian and corrupt police. Many agents who arrested students I spoke to, failed to respect the legal limits and instead confiscated their drugs and pressured to send them to a judge to face penal sanctions. (The other alternative, under the permissible amounts, is to face treatment.) As in the US with the Higher Education Aid Elimination Penalty, there are ways in Mexico that authorities use to discipline their student body.
But neither of these two bits of data could help me organize meetings with anti-prohibitionist students — and in a twelve day period. All this data did was enable me to think about what wouldn’t work in the Mexican context. It’s of little merit to students that the FAFSA can restrict access to education. Similarly, since prisons don’t have much to do with the student experience in Mexico, it was difficult to conceive of a presentation which focused on mass incarceration. Instead, when organizing in a foreign country like Mexico, friends — rather than issues — count for a great deal. Fortunately SSDP made contact in Rio de Janeiro with a Mexican anti-prohibitionist and pro-regulation group called CuPIHD. And it was CuPIHD that facilitated access to students who might be intersted in SSDP.
All in all I was in Mexico City for almost two weeks in October. In this time my presentations began at CuPIHD in their offices and to about a dozen students. Then I received an invitation to present at the Instituto de Estudios Sociales in the UNAM, to a seminar run by the UN Chair in Drugs and Society, Luis Astorga. After this presentation, I received another invitation to present from students at Mexico’s foremost political science faculty, also in the UNAM, the Facultad de Ciencias Politicas y Sociales. Another engagement sprang from that, offering students a pizza lunch near their university. Food was essential to bringing together students who did not know one another to talk about a subject, drugs, that essentially remains taboo in Mexico. After this presentation, and just before I left the country, I accepted an invitation to present at Mexico’s foremost technocratic institution, the ITAM. Again, friends were important to set up this final invitation: the Fundacion Nauman, a German educational institution helped me gain access to the ITAM’s students.
All told, in a two week period, I introduced SSDP to about 60 students. And I was aware that none of these contacts would occur without friends (CuPIHD) or goodwill (students who recognized that SSDP does care about the Mexican situation.)
And now stateside I am trying to use the data I collected from students in Mexico City to stay in touch with them, to make them feel as though they could benefit from continued interaction and depth of engagement with SSDP. For some, I’ve been able to continue on conversations by e-mail, Twitter, and FaceBook. But so many students in Mexico don’t use the web on a daily basis, nor do they have FaceBook accounts, nor is e-mail universally used for rapid communication. Instead, and now back home, I have to rely on the ones who are committed to organizing in a particular space, but who also use the web.
It’s a tough task. But as I wrote I feel more than privileged to do it. And once SSDP has chapters in Mexico City and beyond, they can shoulder the task of responding to the nastiness of the drug war and US support for it.