It’s not hyperbole to say that Betty Aldworth is a rock star in the cannabis movement. As the advocacy director for Colorado’s successful Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in 2012, a former deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, and current executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, she has perhaps done more to mobilize people to change marijuana laws than anyone else in the country.
Weekend Review Kit had the chance to visit Betty at SSDP headquarters in Washington, DC, where we talked about student voice in activism, exciting next steps for the drug reform movement, and the emerging cannabis industry. We found Betty’s perspectives on all of these issues so thoughtful and compelling that we decided to break the interview into two parts. You’ll find Part 1 (on SSDP and policy reform) below and Part 2 (on diversity and cannabias in the cannabis industry) next week.
Weekend Review Kit: When I think about the organizations that have been effective in pushing this conversation around drug policy reform, SSDP comes immediately to mind. Would you talk a bit about the structure of your organization, the agenda, how you all go about doing the work you do?
Betty Aldworth: I’d have to start at the beginning because I think it’s really important to how we function today. We were founded by students on college campuses who were sick of the drug war being waged in their names and stood up and said no more in a variety of different ways. They connected across campuses via bulletin boards, the early Internet, in 1996 and 7. Today we’re essentially a very similar group, except far larger and far more well supported.
We have more than 250 chapters on campuses across the world, in almost every state, in nine different countries including the US. Those chapters are, much like our earliest chapters, working on the pieces of the drug war they find most offensive. They might be working to expand access to Naloxone or to ensure that their campus has a Good Samaritan policy so that if someone’s experiencing an overdose they can call for help without fear of prosecution, fixing campus policies to end evictions for drug related offenses, things like that. Not only just working on their campuses but at every level of government depending on where their interests lie and what’s happening in that space.
We support federal policy initiatives, state policy initiatives, and we’re about to launch a major network wide initiative to impact the UNGASS [United Nations General Assembly Special Session] on the world drug problem. At every level of government our students are engaging. We are very much student run: our Board of Directors is made up of a majority students; we give students a lot of room to figure out what they care about and how they want to make change. When they come to us, students are often angry about the drug war or passionate about making a change or understand that the drug war is a fundamental component of mass incarceration. But they might not have much advocacy experience or community organizing experience. We provide them with the skills and the structure that they need to be most effective on their campuses.
And it’s at college, where you can be bold and daring and figure out what works and build your skills as a persuader or an organizer or a policy changer or whatever it might be and really figure out how you want to impact the world in college and beyond.
WRK: How did you come to this work?
BA: I first worked with SSDP in 2012 on the Colorado [Amendment 64] campaign; I was the advocacy director there. We had SSDP chapters participating in grassroots campaign activities. SSDP was founded after I’d already started college; let’s just say I never had the opportunity to be an SSDPer in college, though I certainly would have been! My introduction came much later. In 2013 when this position became available, I looked at the incredible potential of this network and knew it would be the most rewarding work of my life if I could help empower students to fight the drug war. It was an easy decision to do everything I could to make sure I wound up leading this group of rabble-rousers.
WRK: You’ve in a way answered this question with your previous response, but what do you find the most fulfilling about this job?
BA: Having the opportunity to effectively empower young people to raise their voices, to provide a space where they get to fall in love with change making, with community engagement and activism and advocacy. And we’ve got the best team on the planet here, the staff in this office. The students obviously are extraordinary, and they are oftentimes a lot smarter than me, but the day-to-day of working with this team is really rewarding as well.
WRK: Given the scale of your organization and the relative autonomy of different chapters, is it challenge to get everyone on the same page or to push the same agenda across the board?
BA: Yeah, sure. Sometimes it takes some work to make sure that we are all focusing on the same priorities. Because we encourage students to work on what is most compelling to them, sometimes there will be a statewide or a national opportunity where it’s a little more difficult to get everyone on the same page about why this piece is important. But one of the nice things about this is that SSDPers are great strategists, so if we can talk to them about strategy, we can generally get folks moving in the same direction.
We’re at this time of great change in the drug policy reform movement. You know, marijuana reform is moving so quickly. So much attention is being paid to the opioid epidemic and ways that we can help mitigate the harms there. People are really talking about harm reduction in a way that they’ve never talked about it before, and there’s a global dialogue going on right now about drug control and drug policy at a volume we haven’t seen since the 60s and 70s. An in this time there’s so much cacophony, and really distilling down the key elements and finding the most ripe opportunities is something that’s sometimes challenging because there’s just so much out there.
WRK: And is that kind of your job, as the visionary?
BA: We try to, both within the greater organization and here in the office, make sure there’s a lot of opportunity for people to weigh in with what they feel is most important. Within reason, of course.
WRK: In terms of what’s on the horizon, either state initiatives or federal policy, what’s exciting to you, or what’s motivating you these days?
BA: Our two biggest initiatives for the 2015-2016 school year are going to be the Campus Campaign and UNGASS. The Campus Campaign is a project we first piloted in 2014 in Florida and DC. It was somewhat in response to my experience as an outsider in 2012 in Colorado and also in response to a lot of the things that we heard from allies and students and a lot of the things that we experienced here in 2012. If we had had stronger infrastructure support in Colorado in 2012, we could’ve really bolstered student impact in significant ways and also had a plan to ensure that students knew that Election Day is a beginning and not an end. When it comes to California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona in 2016, we need to be prepared to harness the energy of students to ensure that we can pass these marijuana policy reforms and also keep them moving forward afterwards. In a post marijuana prohibition world, what’s the kind of work that’s going to be the most important for SSDPers?
This Campus Campaign will grow our network very substantially in geographically targeted states where marijuana policy, criminal justice, and other drug policy adjacent reforms are being run and give students a clear path. Building prior to the election and providing a clear path for those students to move through once the election has been won. That’s a very exciting piece of work that we’ll be doing over the next two years. We’ll also be doing some work in Oregon and Washington, relatedly, on post marijuana prohibition drug policy reform. Working on harm reduction specifically there as well as other broader drug policy reform issues.
The other piece is UNGASS – the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem is the official name of it. Every 20 or so years the United Nations General Assembly has this special session on drugs. They have these on all sorts of major topics – human rights, children. Mexico and other Latin American countries requested that the 2019 session be pushed up to 2016 because the global drug problem is so centered in Latin America and these Latin American countries are recognizing that there’s an opportunity to make some changes. So they asked it to be moved up. That’s next year, and that’s a really great opportunity to shift the dialogue on the global level about what we’re doing about the world drug problem.
SSDPers are going to be engaging in that conversation in a significant way over the course of the 2015-16 school year. We’re going to be putting together a model UNGASS, so students will be holding their own special session We’ll work on communicating with a number of states and delegations about what students around the world would like to see from UNGASS, from their leaders at this particular meeting. So we’ll be working a lot around raising the student voice, both in the media and with the delegates themselves, and doing some kinds of actions around the meeting itself in April.
WRK: Where will that meeting be?
BA: New York.
WRK:You were in Austria for a UN event recently. Was that part of the same effort?
BA: Every year the Commission on Narcotic Drugs has their annual meeting in Vienna in March, so I was out for that. It’s part of the same apparatus, the various UN drug control organizations. I went with two of our board members, students, to represent the youth voice. We hosted a side session about a handful of issues that are particularly relevant to youth, including new psychotropic substances, which are designed to replace illegal substances. Because of this race that chemists and law enforcement are in, we are constantly seeing new psychotropic substances on the market. Young people are more susceptible to that in general, and sometimes these substances can be extremely dangerous. We talked about that, we talked about public health messaging to students. We talked about, from the US perspective, the various ways that we make drug use more dangerous through stupid laws. The RAVE Act, in particular, which has been interpreted by many to mean not only should they not offer drug education in venues but also not offer water or places for people to chill out, lest they be accused of hosting a drug involved premises. We spoke about those and other idiotic policies that lead to making drug use for young people in particular more dangerous than it needs to be.
Be sure to check back next week for Part 2 of WRK’s interview with Bettty Aldworth (diversity and cannabias)