From smokeout to teach-in: harnessing the rebel spirit of 4/20

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April 20 used to draw crowds of 10,000 or more to Norlin Quad at University of Colorado Boulder. This year, students are being encouraged to gather instead at the 2016 Cannabis Symposium, a non-consumption event.
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April 20 is a legendary day in University of Colorado history, when in the past, upwards of 10,000 people would descend on Norlin Quad to toke up at 4:20 p.m. in celebration of all things cannabis. The annual event was a holiday for many but an expensive and unproductive nightmare to others, and it became a contentious occasion to all.

I say “legend” because few students at CU know firsthand about the day’s history. The four-year turnover in students on a college campus translates to a four-year turnover in institutional knowledge, so the memory and concept of the event is dissipating.

The last year of the notorious smokeout was 2011. For the next three years, campus administrators closed the campus to the public in an attempt to squash the massive smokeout. The campus reopened last year to no incident.

This year, campus will not only remain open on 4/20, but the university is sanctioning the 2016 Cannabis Symposium, a teach-in hosted by the CU Chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and the Cultural Events Board at the University Memorial Center.

The Symposium was born out of a drug policy class taught by Caroline Conzelman, Ph.D., an anthropology instructor at CU. Recognizing the contrast between the silence of the campus closure and their own lively conversation about drug policy, Conzelman and the students decided to host a small teach-in on 4/20 and brought campus Chancellor Phil DiStefano in to discuss the closure.

This year’s symposium is the third and largest to date, featuring five keynote speakers, eight panels and discussions led by student organizations.

Conzelman says this year’s non-consumption event strives to turn the day into a more productive occasion that redirects the campus’s conversation away from mere consumption and toward the interlinking of drug policy and social justice.

SSDP chapter president, sophomore Elizabeth Henneman, is an advocate for drug policy reform and harm reduction policy. She says it is important to change the culture of the smokeout and that students play a crucial role.

“I have my own rebel spirit, but I know that I have to work within a system to change it for the positive,” Henneman says. “People with authority respect hard work and have an appreciation for working within constraints. In the long run, [conversation about drug policy] is much more powerful than standing in a field smoking pot.”

Campus administrators agree. “The symposium is exactly what we want on this campus,” says Ryan Huff, chief spokesman to the university. “We want good, academic discussions on a variety of issues and that includes drug laws and marijuana. Having academic forums to debate and discuss those issues is exactly what a university should do.”

For some Boulderites, there is a romanticism about the smokeouts of years past, remnants of the town’s fading hippie character. But the nostalgia is quickly overshadowed by the potential of the Symposium to affect the ongoing war on drugs. In that spirit, Conzelman and the SSDP both refer to the event as a teach-in, an intentional nod to the term’s roots in anti-war political activism.

The first teach-in was in 1965, a one-day moratorium on classes at the University of Michigan to allow for teaching and learning about the Vietnam War. With roots in civil rights strategies, the day matched protest action with a constructive, educative method that did not disrupt the mission of the university. Framed as an educational exercise, it received the endorsement of the school’s administrators and the support needed to bring light to issues under-addressed in the political sphere.

Drawing on that history, SSDP hopes to use the teach-in to shed light on the ongoing war on drugs, the zero-tolerance drug policy and massive expansion of drug penalties that used mandatory minimums to put even petty offenders behind bars.

The policies were launched in the 1970s with promises of lower crime rates, less drug use and safer streets, but the results were different. Drug use rates increased along with criminalization and the policies led to mass incarceration and international drug conflicts.

In 1980 there were 50,000 people in jail for drugs, by 1997 there were 400,000. Today there are over 1 million.

“Because of the war on drugs, we are left with stigmas and perceptions portraying people who use drugs as doing something immoral or wrong,” Henneman says. “But drug use is not a moral issue.”

It is a multifaceted one, and the symposium will leave no face of the issue unexamined. The all-day event features keynote speakers, including drug policy activist and owner of Simply Pure dispensary, Wanda James, along with several others.

And, when the clock tolls 4:20, students will be holding a moment of silence, a pause in a rally at the UMC Fountain to remember the victims of the war on drugs.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.