Ramin Zareian, a philosophy major at the University of Georgia from Lawrenceville, Georgia, talks to another student at the Students for Sensible Drug Policy table at Tate on Friday, April 20, 2018, in Athens, Georgia.(Photo/Miranda Daniel, mirandadanielphoto@gmail.com)

Students for Sensible Drug Policy is a worldwide organization made up of people who want to see reform regarding the criminalization of drugs and the ending of the school-to-prison pipeline. For many, there’s a personal reason for this.

Hunter Knight, a sophomore film student from Gainesville, heads the SSDP chapter at the University of North Georgia. He joined SSDP after a significant other of his fell victim to the misuse of drugs.

“I had a significant other who wasn’t making the smartest choices,” Knight said. “There was a situation where they didn’t have the testing kit and they thought they were taking something but was taking something completely different and they woke up the next morning and had a seizure… I wondered why there wasn’t greater knowledge about this stuff.”

The SSDP Southeastern Regional Conference, hosted at University of Georgia from Oct. 26-28, included workshops and discussions related to reforming drug policy in the U.S. and around the world.

Janis Yoon, a junior English major from Suwanee, said the conference is meant to promote harm reduction and end the myth that drug users are simply criminals.

“The panels will be spanning from poverty in War on Drugs, criminal justice in the War on Drugs, psychedelic science,” Yoon said. “We’re doing a naloxone training.”

Naloxone is an agent that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. Although it doesn’t cease the overdose entirely, it slows it down by forcing the body to stop processing the opiate for a certain amount of time before arriving at the hospital.

Athens activists, showcased by the State of Georgia spotlight, were there to specifically discuss cannabis policy reform. While recently legalized in Canada, within the U.S. only nine states have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty in total have legalized medical marijuana.

The conference was moved from Sanford Hall where it was held last year to the basement of Walker’s Pub after the organization was locked out. The change in location did not deter SSDP to inform others about drug policy.

Yoon, along with other members of the SSDP, said drug use is heavily stigmatized.

“People assume that if you’re advocating for drug policy reform, that you are, you know, a drug addict,” Yoon said. “But if you take a closer look, drug policy reform has tendrils in all of these other issues. It’s all connected. I can tie drug policy reform to elderly people, to disabled people, to women, to people of color, to lower-income people.”

Though SSDP is nonpartisan, Knight spoke about spreading the word to people in office.

“As always, we just need to vote more. I want people to know the faces of their senators and representatives, the governor. I want people to know to vote for Stacey Abrams or we probably won’t have any real big advances in cannabis industry for another four years or plus,” Knight said.

Deborah Gonzalez, Georgia District 117 representative, spoke about the link between poverty and the War on Drugs.

“[Cannabis is] considered a level one drug and that means that there is no medical use for it at all and it is a crime to even have it … Laws are passed that unfortunately have a disparate treatment on only a certain segment of the population, in a way it keeps that population to a certain status quo. And right now, that status quo is poverty, ”Gonzalez said.

Mariah Parker, the Athens-Clarke County Commissioner for District 2, also spoke about the connection between poverty and drug use.

“I think that part of this economic system, at large, it thrives when there’s someone at the bottom ... Using drug use and one’s criminal record because of illicit drugs as a means of locking people out of upward economic mobility, or locking them out of the workforce in the first place, is a way of maintaining that power structure,” Parker said.

A new panel discussed the the opioid crisis and how it relates to cannabis laws.

David Bradford, the Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the department of public administration and policy, talked about the history of pharmaceuticals and how it led to the opioid epidemic.

“Oxycontin is essentially the same molecule as heroin,” Bradford said. “Once the supply of pharmaceutical opioids dried up, it was a natural step to heroin … I think it’s probably true that nearly all heroin purchased today is cut with fentanyl. Fentanyl is extraordinarily deadly.”

Sharon Ravert, executive director of Peachtree NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) said cannabis could be used in dealing with pain.

“I think that using cannabis to come off these drugs is also very helpful as well as a way to treat this pain … There’s a lot of money in fixing the [opioid] problem just as much as there is in drugs in general,” Ravert said.

Michael-Devereux Bertin, the executive director at the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, said D.A.R.E., an education program founded in 1983 that schools use to inform students about the harmful effects of drugs, doesn’t work.

“There’s so many people in South Carolina who still believe that you go and talk to high school kids that and tell them that 25 percent of you in here will never touch a drug, but the rest of you guys [will],” Bertin said. “And they really think that that’s going to change countless of people from experimenting and keep them automatically from drug use.”

Bradford spoke about policies that can be implemented on the macro and micro scale, saying it’s only a matter of time before cannabis is legalized nationwide.

“[One policy] is diverting people away from opiate initial use and misuse with medical cannabis access,” said Bradford. “You cannot kill yourself with cannabis. You can easily kill yourself with opiates.”

After breaking for lunch, SSDP demonstrated how to administer naloxone so attendees could learn how to quickly and safely help those suffering from an opiate overdose.

The final day of the conference included discussions about the war on drugs, intersectionality, and psychedelics..

“When we’re talking, we’re winning,” Ravert said. “We’re winning because we make sense. You just gotta talk to people.”

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