Kent State students discuss sensible drug policies

Ryan Young

Rated third in the United States by High Times as one of the top colleges for marijuana activists, Kent State lived up to this distinction by hosting the Students for Sensible Drug Policy 2010 Midwest conference this weekend.

The student organization meets weekly to discuss current issues facing students related to drug use. One policy SSDP is responsible for is the Good Samaritan rule.

“If a student overdoses on campus, the student won’t be charged with a crime, but instead given the care they require,” SSDP president Tom Zocolo said. “It’s a three strike thing…three incidents and you’re out.”

This policy, as well as the legalization of medical marijuana in Ohio were among the most discussed topics at this year’s conference.

“Some people think I’m plain out nuts,” said Kenny Yuko, Ohio House Representative and keynote speaker for the conference. “We need to change that.”

Yuko has campaigned tirelessly for medical marijuana, although he said he has never used it despite his multiple sclerosis.

Yuko told of a letter he received from an elderly man who had cancer and pains associated with chemotherapy that drove him to tears most days. That was until he discovered medical marijuana.

However, after running out and finding himself paralyzed in pain one night, he sent his elderly wife to downtown Cleveland for drugs. He felt terrible for sending her and she felt terrible because no one would sell an elderly lady a twenty sack.

“These are the stories we need to tell,” said Yuko. “I see a lot of compassion in the letters I get from students for relatives who benefit from medical marijuana or wish they could, and that’s the beginning.”

Dr. John Sorboro, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown and Director of the Outreach Addiction Clinic in Kent joined Chris Krueger, a member of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, to talk to those in attendance about harm reduction and syringe exchanges. “Currently the only program in existence is in Cleveland. We’re trying to raise awareness to open more centers around Ohio,” Krueger said.

In a needle exchange program, one needle can be traded for a new, sterilized one at “hotspots” of intravenous drug use in the area. Critics argue that this is contributing to the drug problem, supplying a means to use.

“For better or worse, the use of substances does exist,” said Sorboro. “But what those who practice this model (harm reduction) look to do is to bring about interventions that reduce the risks and morbidity surrounding the use of those substances.”

Another guest speaker, Brandy Zink, told students about her current status as, what she calls, a “marijuana refugee.”

“I moved to Detroit after 10 years of fighting for medical cannabis legislation,” she said. “I was tired of feeling like a criminal. I have epilepsy as well, and being a cancer survivor, I need cannabis for my everyday.”

Zink has been the Executive Director of both the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association and the Ohio Patient Network.

“We need our young people to stay and fight,” she said, “I want you to look at Michigan’s example of the ballot initiative process.”

In this process, five cities in Michigan regulated cannabis in a way, by making it law enforcement’s lowest priority or creating exemptions. Ann Arbor was the first city in the country to decriminalize marijuana in the 70s, and Zink says many states would follow Ohio’s lead if legislation passed here.

There have been four medical marijuana bills in Ohio, but none of them have been given serious consideration.

“With the bill this time, I don’t think Ohio got much done,” Zink said of the Yuko-introduced House Bill 478, which would “…legalize the use, growth and dispensing of medical marijuana for persons suffering from debilitating conditions including cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.”

Support for legalization is growing nationwide, and with last week’s narrow defeat of California’s Proposition 19 by less than 4 percent, voters may see more marijuana legislation in subsequent elections.

Zink told students they were the future of this fight, and as such, should be taking the issue to the community in a legitimate way.

“We need to know drug war facts, and hold ourselves to a higher standard, no pun intended, when it comes to advocacy,” she said. “Maybe leave the tie-dye at home when you’re representing this movement.”

The “pot-head” image is something SSDP and similar organizations are constantly trying to shed.

“We are a movement. We are here to be serious and work with the system to change things,” Zocolo said. “My personal drug use has nothing to do with my morals, or even my school performance — I do work.”

For students like Zocolo who believe in medical marijuana, syringe exchange programs and policies like the Good Samaritan rule, Zink said the time has come to create government changes through “people power.”

“I hope you all stay in Ohio,” said Zink. “Apply your energy outside the university in the local community, to incrementally bring this to Ohio, so that I can come home,” she said.

Contact Ryan Young at [email protected].