I tracked down two principal organizers within Utah's drug policy reform movement at Tuesday's Hempfest at the University of Utah student union plaza. The event celebrated the plethora of uses for hemp--the stuff that can't get you high but can become rope--as well as cannabis, which does get you high.
Valerie Douroux, president of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy-University of Utah
Is your organization in favor of decriminalizing cannabis or legalizing cannabis?
Decriminalizing first, then adopt a medical system. We need to decriminalize it first. Making marijuana the lowest criminal priority will save us on incarcerating already-overcrowded prisons and tax-payer dollars.%uFFFD
Are you petitioning the Utah government for reform? If so, which governments, which reforms?
Right now we're pushing to make marijuana the lowest criminal priority, which Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said, "Yes, it already is," but we want it in writing. That's what we're petitioning. We're empowering the youth to go lobby up at the capitol through the legislative process. It's hard to get things on the ballot here but that's what we're working toward as well. You know, building a coalition of people so that we can actually have our voice heard.
In many states that now have medical marijuana reform started in one city that made marijuana the lowest criminal priority for prosecution. Have you thought of petitioning, say, Salt Lake City in particular, or Park City in particular?
Right, absolutely, that would be Salt Lake, the heart of Utah. This city is the most liberal, open to conversation and dialog. And that's what SSDP is all about, engaging in dialog. Because for so long we've been suppressed to even talk about drugs and be identified as hippies, tree huggers. No, let's talk about it first, let's get everybody together from their vast knowledge on the same front and let's talk about it.
What has been the reception from the campus community to Hempfest?
The campus community has really respectful, as far as talking to everybody who has a booth. They've been able to meet a lot of minds from different conditionings to really open up and see where other people are coming from. Positive feedback all around. Everybody has really pulled together as a community.
What conditionings are you're talking about and how do they relate to current drug policy?
Economic, social, behavioral: we all grow up with conditioning. You know, from our social atmosphere, our friends and family, and many other environmental factors take place. These happen to build our mindsets, you know, so we think with these premeditated thoughts before we're even conscious of the fact that we're thinking them. To break the conditioning, to open your mind, is only a world of gain. What we all have to gain by opening our minds is forgetting these preconceived notions.
Can you name a couple of the most notorious preconceived notions?
A lot of people still think you can smoke hemp. You know, that's been one of the main myths right now. Also, there are a lot of conservative people in Utah as well that don't realize the war on drugs is costing more money, you know, in the long run(pdf).
Do you get offended when people ask you if you're a drug user?
No. Not really.
Ok then, I will ask: are you a drug user?
So what motivates you to seek a more sensible drug policy if the issue is less personal to you than it could be?
Nobody but nobody should be punished for what they put in their bodies, absent harm to others. No one should be punished for that. And we should not be paying for it. As a non drug user, why should we pay for this? We have roads, we have teachers to pay, we have students who need tuition and this is what our money is going towards? People who violate their probation end up going back into the system. The system isn't prepared, then we shake our heads at these people and say "Yep, repeat offenders, repeat offenders." Why are they repeat offenders? Can we strip to the core of this problem and find out why people are repeat offending when we're investing so much money into this system? How do we address and solve this issue?
In Utah, if you're no longer a student, where might a graduate who's in favor of a sensible drug policy find a place to graduate to?
Absolutely, the Drug Policy Alliance is one of the leading organizations right now. They would be an awesome place to join. And Students for a Sensible Drug Policy is not just about students, we have alumni, we reach out to professors. Anybody who is in this community that we can get to brains to talk and all put it in the same melting pot of drug policy reform, that's where it begins. We have NORML, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, just barely started here.
Aaron Katz (right), vice president of SLC NORML
The local Salt Lake City NORML chapter is new. How's it going so far?
It's only 6 to 8 weeks old, yes. We have a lot of members pouring in. We have a very strong membership base after a very short period. People are really getting into what we're doing.
Can you tell me about that process of determining your group's goals and if you've determined anything so far?
It's been sort of difficult to get which direction we're trying to go in because we're having a little bit of funding problems. But with any new organization, you've got to expect that. We're trying to get specific initiatives onto the ballot for 2010, or as soon as possible, for medical cannabis, first of all, because we feel that's the most important one. And hemp because that's probably equally important for fuel, for paper, for fiber, for clothes, anything. Additionally, recreationally, because we feel its everyone's personal right to choose what they put in their own bodies.
So I guess you're looking for some pot smokers with dough?
No, I wouldn't put it that way. I wouldn't call them pot smokers. They're cannabis users. People who smoke pot are not drug addicts, they're not lazy stoners like everybody makes them out to be. In fact, they're some of the most productive members of our society. I feel like the funding problem won't be a problem after a very short period.
Some pot smokers cannabis users are lazy, though, right?
Some of them. There's no way I could say everyone is completely active, so yeah.
I saw a map from the LA Times the other day that shows where all the cannabis dispensaries are, and the entire city is lit up with little green leaves symbolizing a dispensary. Do you imagine that's how Utah should look someday, or what is your vision for the future?
My vision is kind of like an Amsterdam style, not where you could just buy and grow as much pot as you want. There has to be some restrictions, we understand that. There's no way you could just let pot flow out into the street. Eventually people are going to abuse it like alcohol. People don't sell alcohol on street corners everyday. They should be selling pot on street corners everyday.
But don't reform advocates claim that pot is safer than alcohol?
It absolutely is and we have tons of facts to prove it, but we think marijuana should be taxed and regulated. People seem to leave out the "regulated" part and just want to think that we want to get everybody stoned. We want to tax it and regulate it as legitimate medication for people who actually need it, with debilitating diseases and simply for people who want it to relax. People drink alcohol to relax. People do a lot of things to relax. Pot is just one of them.
What sort of people join Salt Lake City NORML?
Everyone. Cannabis users come from all walks of life. People think it's just 1970s hippies with tie-dye shirts smoking joints in th emiddle of the street. No. I'll tell you right now, No. I know carpenters, i Know electricians, I know janitors, I know lawyers, I know doctors--any occupation you can think of, I can tell you is represented at a chapter of NORML.
What percentage of your members, if you know, feel like they use it for medicinal purposes and do they smoke it because they have a hang nail, or what are some of the diagnoses?
I would probably say at least 50 percent of our chapter, obviously I can't speak for the rest of NORML. %uFFFDI use it for post-traumatic stress disorder. I am a medical user. Maybe not legitimately, because we live in Utah. I find tons of relief from marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder. I feel it would help every soldier out there. There are some people using it for mutliple sclerosis. Other people are using it for HIV. I don't want to get into who those people are, it's not really my jurisdiction to do so.
You're a soldier or were a soldier?
Uh, I don't want to get into that either.
So what's next for Salt Lake City NORML?
We are looking for members. All of our donations are tax deductible. We don't sell anything for profit, we're a completely non-profit organization. Every penny donated to Salt Lake City NORML goes toward getting an initiative on the ballot to legalize cannabis. People think medical marijuana is just a stepping stone for recreational use. Let me tell you right now: Yes, it is. And you know what? Once medical marijuana is legalized people will see that it's not as harmful and all the lies about it will come out. People will see it's not what people say it is.