South Carolina Students Hope to Challenge GOP Candidates on Drug Policy Reform

Posted on January 18, 2012


Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a college organization that speaks out on drug reform, is currently running its “On the Record” project, which puts members from various colleges in presidential primary states to ask Republican candidates questions about drug reform at town hall meetings and press events. SSDP has been responsible for allowing voters to understand more about the candidates’ views on drug reform, and quite often what has been seen is scary, such as Rick Santorum not knowing that the federal government imprisons people for marijuana.

That’s why SSDP’s On the Record campaign is so interesting. Although it is extremely difficult to get a candidate other than Paul to speak at length about these issues, their short answers offer us some of the only insight we will get. And in South Carolina, the SSDP chapter in Charleston (the only one in the state) at the College of Charleston is carrying the torch for the On the Record project to continue pressing candidates to answer drug policy questions, but this time around, it might not be as easy as it was in New Hampshire.

Melissa Colebank, a senior in Communications at the College of Charleston and president of the SSDP chapter there, took the time to talk to Dirty South News about what they plan to accomplish in a primary that has so far completely ignored the drug reform debate and what it’s like to be a leader in one of the only (if not the only) pro-drug reform student groups in the Palmetto state, a state that badly needs new drug policies.

The SSDP chapter at the College of Charleston is the only one in the state and currently has about 10-15 active members on a college campus that boasts over 10,000 students. Although the number is not substantial, it’s growing, and the group, which is not yet 2-years-old, is working hard to break stereotypes of pro-drug reform advocates while getting the local community more involved in the conversation. And with the GOP primaries currently in the state, the Charleston SSDP chapter will no doubt be one of the only voices pressing candidates to answer tough questions about drug reform at town halls and rallies.

However, in a socially conservative state like S.C., part of the reason it is difficult to get people behind the cause is that being against drug prohibition in a conservative state has a negative stigma.

“Usually people are receptive,” Colebank said. “Few have been negative, but it’s hard to get people to put their name on it…A lot of people have respect for what we’re doing but at the end of the day, they’re hesitant to say ‘this is what I want. I want drug policy and I want it now.’ They’re still hesitant to attach their name and reputation. In Charleston, that’s a big thing – your reputation can be a big deal.”

Colebank hopes to change some of the negative stigma associated with drug reform advocates. One of the ways she and her colleagues are doing that is by offering talks and information sessions, such as offering a popular “Know Your Rights” sessions, where people can come learn about their rights in regards to law enforcement, which has gained the interest of students and non-students alike in the area.

In addition, members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) will also be coming to talk to locals about why, through their years of law enforcement experience, they believe prohibition is a losing and wasteful battle.

It’s all part of a campaign to change the image of being pro-drug reform to the inaccurate stigma of a bunch of pot smokers who want to get high to a conversation about the many negative social implications current drug policy has on Americans.

“A lot of it is about changing stereotypes,” Colebank said. “People just think we want to legalize weed and that’s it. But after talking to people for a minute, they can see it’s more about human rights, education, and freedom to do what you want, so I think we’re breaking a lot of stereotypes.”

Breaking stereotypes is the ongoing challenge for the Charleston SSDP chapter, but right now, getting candidates to talk about drug reform during the South Carolina primary is the pressing issue – but so far, it hasn’t been easy.

With only 10-15 active members, the Charleston SSDP chapter has far less manpower than the On the Record project in New Hampshire, in which several area chapters participated. New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts alone have 10 SSDP chapters – about the same number Charleston has members.

“Right now it’s just us working on the South Carolina primary. The Georgia State chapter said they will try to come, as well, but the closest chapters to us are not that close – about 6-7 hours away,” Colebank said. “We’re really just doing it on our own for now.”

Not only does that mean less people to cover events, but statistically, it also means a far lesser chance of getting called upon to ask a question. In addition, Charleston SSDP members have been turned away from some candidates’ events, including the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, Colebank told DSN.

Romney aides have been known to be very protective of their boss.

But Colebank’s and the rest of the Charleston SSDP chapter’s aim is not only to get candidates to talk about drug reform, but to encourage South Carolina residents to think about it, too.

“We’re just gonna try to get as many people into the town halls and events that we can and get the idea out,” Colebank said. “But if it’s an event, like a debate, that we don’t think we can get our questions asked at all, we still plan on doing some guerilla reform where we hand out cards that ask questions to get people thinking about marijuana and what the money is used for.”

She added: “What we miss, what we don’t get here, the ten chapters in Florida will get the information and then we can come down and help them. Our project doesn’t begin and end in Charleston –  this is just another leg of the On the Record tour.”

And for Colebank, it’s a meaningful experience to be participating in the war against the war on drugs.

“SSDP has absolutely changed my life,” she said. “I always tell people: thank God I found drug reform because, otherwise, I would not have known what to do with my life.”

For more information on Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and their On the Record project, visit their Youtube channel and website.