Interviews With College Student Marijuana Activists

college marijuana



Alex Baskin: How did you first got involved with Students for Sensible Drug Policy?

Kris Krane: I became involved in 1998 when what was then an American University NORML chapter became one of the first 5 SSDP chapters in the country. I was an underclassman at the time, so I didn’t get as actively involved in it until about a year or so later. But I was first involved with one of those inaugural 5 chapters when the organization was first getting started.

AB: What are you doing now?

KK: I recently started a new management and consulting company called 4Front Advisors. We work with people who are looking to open best-practice model medical cannabis dispensaries. We came out of Harborside Health Center in Oakland. I had been the Director of Client Services for a company called CannBe which helped people start dispensaries on the model of Harborside Health Center, with very community-focused, non-profit oriented dispensaries to really give back to the communities and give back on the issue as a whole. That company unfortunately did not work out, but I’ve since started a new company, which is backed by John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix. 4Front Advisors has the only comprehensive set of operations and training manuals in the dispensary industry and we’re working with people who want to start best-practice model dispensaries in their communities. At the moment, we’re focused pretty much exclusively on Arizona, which is mostly because of the timeframe with their permit application process, but we plan to be nation-wide in scope.

How did your work with SSDP affect or prepare you for your current career?

SSDP guided everything I winded up doing with my life after college. When I graduated from school I wound up working for 6 years as the Associate Director at the national office of NORML [National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws] and then in 2006 I left NORML to go back to SSDP and serve as the executive director of the national organization from 2006 to 2009. My entire career has been driven by a motivation to enact more reasonable drug policies. I’ve seen the proliferation of storefront medical cannabis dispensaries in California and other states and the impact that is having on the general population is that they’re being shown that cannabis can be distributed in a way that is responsible and not frightening. The proliferation itself of really model facilities that are distributing cannabis in a socially responsible way is going to help further this issue in ways that we haven’t been able to accomplish through the non-profit world. So I don’t just see this as cashing in on the green rush; I think if we do this the right way, the morals and the ethics that we have as activists and bring those values to this emerging industry, we have the opportunity to develop an industry unlike one that’s ever been developed before, one that keeps the ethics of the issue at heart but also advances the issue as a whole.

How do you think the student drug reform movement changed since you got involved?

There’s no doubt that the student drug policy movement today is leaps and bounds larger, more sophisticated and more powerful than it was when I first got involved. Back in 1998, there were a handful of NORML chapters on college campuses around the country, but there was really no centralized, organized driving force for the student movement to end the drug war. I think it was, at that time, the biggest missing piece of the overall effort to reform the war on drugs. Back when I was first getting involved, there were five SSDP chapters in the US. Today there are around 200 or so and I know that at the last conference there were almost 500 students there. It’s amazing what the organization has become and I think that some of the changes that we’ve seen in the last couple years in terms of moving towards a more rational drug policy, can be attributed to the now generations of students who have come out of this vibrant network and really worked to affect change.

What's your most memorable SSDP moment?

Gosh, that’s hard, because I’ve been involved in SSDP for 12 years now. The one’s that’s jumping out at me now is a protest that we organized when I was running the national organization, at the Supreme Court. The Court was hearing a case known as the “Bong hits for Jesus” case. It was about a kid in Alaska who, when the Olympics parade came through Juneau, his school let out the kids to allow them to go to the parade, and he held up a sign that said “Bongs hits for Jesus.” He was suspended from school and he sued saying that his free speech rights were violated. It was an important issue about free speech and the ability for students to speak freely about their views on the war on drugs and it was being portrayed in the media as almost a silly thing because of the absurdity of the banner he held up. But, in reality, the government was arguing that teachers should have the right to punish students for expressing their views on drugs or drug policy. So we wanted to change the story, if not affect the outcome of the Supreme Court decision itself. We were able to organize about 50 or 60 students on the steps of the Supreme Court on the morning of the hearing to unfurl a giant banner that said “Free speech for students,” which was written to look just like the original “Bong hits for Jesus” banner. That evening, every single story about that Supreme Court case had a picture of the “Free speech for students” banner as opposed to every story that had come in the months beforehand, which only talked about “Bong hits for Jesus.” So I think we changed the dialogue on that. In the end the Supreme Court, while they did rule that teachers have the right to punish students for promoting drug use, they expressly said in their decision that teachers and principals don’t have the right to punish students for expressing their views about drug policy. So I think we probably had an influence on the actual Court’s decision, and we were certainly able to change the rhetoric about what was a very important case about students’ free speech rights when it comes to drugs and drug policy.

Why do you think other alumni should stay involved in this movement?

I strongly encourage alumni to stay involved in the movement, to stay involved in SSDP. When I first started out, we didn’t have alumni. We were literally the first ones doing this. We had some of the elder statesmen of the movement to look up to, which was great, but we now have 12 years of SSDP alums and a much larger, much more vibrant network of students that we ever have before. I think that the people who have come before and who have been through it have a lot to offer today’s students in terms of mentoring, in terms of advice and, for a national organization, in terms of donations and fundraising. SSDP is never going to be like NORML which has a built-in network of marijuana consumers who automatically gravitate towards supporting their organization. I would hope that SSDP could attract major billionaire-type funding like DPA [Drug Policy Alliance] or MPP [Marijuana Policy Project], but really SSDP’s strength is going to come from the fact that its graduating hundreds, if not thousands of student every year, many of whom are going on to successful professions reforming drug laws, but those who don’t are going on to other things and they have the opportunity to give back to the organization, to give the students who are coming after them the same opportunities that they had. I think the more involved the alumni are in mentoring students or giving back financially and otherwise, the stronger the national organization will be and the stronger the current student network is going to be.



When, where, and why did you first get involved with SSDP?

Although I was never an enrolled student at Berkeley, my first involvement with SSDP was at Cal in September 2001, just a few days after 9/11, in fact. I attended a small meeting on campus there that was held by Rebecca Saltzman and Scarlett Swerdlow, the founders of that chapter. I had already been doing education and harm reduction work with the nonprofit group DanceSafe for over a year by that point, and it was obvious that I couldn't avoid the policy side of the issue, since it greatly affected my work in various ways. I was getting DanceSafe started at my school - San Francisco State University, but there was no SSDP chapter and I wasn't quite sure how to get that started. So I piggybacked off of Berkeley for a few years. I spent a lot of time at Berkeley helping that chapter out, and I incorporated some policy-type advocacy in my DanceSafe chapter at SFSU. Although I never technically launched an SSDP chapter at my school back then, I did a lot of harm reduction-oriented events through DanceSafe. So I'm really happy to see that today, not only does SF State have an actual SSDP chapter, but many chapters around the country have harm reduction as one of their top agendas. When I got started 10 years ago, harm reduction was not something that most SSDP chapters took on. The focus was more on policy and reforming laws. That is something we (me and the Berkeley chapter) tried to change, and I think we (along with many others of course) were successful in doing over the years. I was completely amazed at the 2008 national conference to see some of the work that SSDP chapters were doing, the accomplishments they made not just in local and state policy reform, but in implementing harm reduction measures on their campuses that I never even imagined possible. So, yeah, we've come a long way, and that makes me very proud!

What are you doing now?

Today, I live in Los Angeles and work in the field of film and TV production. I was a Story Assistant for the A&E series "Intervention" for three years. Now I am working on a documentary project of my own (in partnership with DanceSafe) about some controversy surrounding the scene of massive raves in Los Angeles. Last year, while I was still at "Intervention," I wanted to take on a side project of my own, something to keep me busy and creative and productive on a personal level. So I submitted a proposal to DanceSafe to produce an online video series on rave culture and harm reduction. After they approved it, I started shooting interviews with ravers and drug users in LA. This was at the same time that the 14th annual Electric Daisy Carnival took place - a massive electronic festival at the LA Coliseum. The news media, for whatever reasons, paid a lot of attention to EDC this year, and highly publicized the rate of hospital emergencies stemming from this event, even though this had happened before. Anyway, the capacity for this event reached the highest of any music festival in North American history, so there was also a lot of hype behind this gathering. Add to that footage that ravers captured of crowd control problems during the party, and the death (alleged ecstasy overdose) of a teenage girl, and the news really jumped on this story. The impact that this had on me and my work was immediately apparent. I couldn't avoid the issues surrounding this event because that's all everyone in the rave scene was talking about. So I dropped the web video series idea and instead turned the project into a short documentary specifically about the aftermath of EDC. I hope to get a few more interviews and wrap up editing in a month or two, and get this film into film festivals starting this summer. This documentary features members of SSDP as well as Drug Policy Alliance, and DanceSafe of course. And in a way, as with most of my projects, it’s a voice of youth culture which always gets overlooked in news portrayals of any issue. This is definitely a complex story with a wide range of perspectives, but at the core, it's a representation of the issues surrounding the rave scene from the point-of-view of the ravers. From a policy perspective, this story is particularly interesting because Los Angeles officials actually attempted to respond with a harm reduction strategy. For anyone who's ever worked in harm reduction, you would know how challenging it is to sustain support from a government body. What has happened in LA in the past year after Electric Daisy Carnival is absolutely revolutionary within the scope and history of harm reduction and all the controversy it normally stirs up. This is a revolution I plan to highlight in the film. Sometimes I think "revolutionary" is too strong of a term to describe what has happened, but granted my background in DanceSafe and SSDP, I can't avoid that word, knowing all that has happened after EDC.

How did your work with SSDP affect your current career?

Wow, where do I even begin? My choice to go into filmmaking was spontaneous. I'm a rather impulsive person. But this was an impulsive decision (which I made one day while walking around on campus during my first year at city college) that I stuck with. So I transferred to SF State (which had the best film production program in the Bay Area for a reasonably priced, 4-year university at that time) and got started on my major. I had gotten involved with DanceSafe the summer before I transferred, and then hooked up with SSDP a year later. During all this, my vision of filmmaking was to direct action and drama-oriented theatrical features, what many would categorize as standard mainstream movies. Essentially, my goals as a filmmaker, I feel in retrospect, were rather limited. During college, I did a few video projects on harm reduction and drug policy which involved interviewing activists and community members about some of the issues I was working with in DanceSafe and SSDP. This ignited my interest in documentaries, and from that point on, I pretty much only worked on documentaries, and I watched a lot of documentaries as well. What I took away from SSDP and my experiences in the harm reduction and drug policy reform world as a whole was the urge to produce films that raised questions. I became very curious to ask why the world worked a certain way, why certain voices were routinely ignored (esp. the voices of young people), and of course, why we would have a system in place that was a proven failure, whether you're talking about drugs or any other issue. Before SSDP (and DanceSafe), I don't think I cared to make films that would actually help anyone. By the time I got out of college, however, that's all I wanted to do. I had pretty much become the typical "I wanna change the world" aspiring documentary filmmaker haha! With that growth, I feel my creativity only expanded, and the depth of the type of stories I wanted to tell and the content I wanted to produce was obviously greater as well.

How has the drug policy reform movement changed since your involvement in SSDP and DanceSafe?

SSDP alone has shown that the movement has become far more youth-oriented than before. More youths are involved in the movement than ever before.

What's your most memorable SSDP moment?

I only get to pick one? Actually I'll pick the 2004 conference in DC. It was one night, very late, at the hotel next to the conference (which was held at University of Maryland, College Park). You know all the SSDPers were hanging out at the hotel, and then we decide to head over to Rob Kampia's (of Marijuana Policy Project) house. He lived in another part of town. I don't remember exactly where, but we had to take the Metro subway to get there. So you have like 20 or 30 SSDPers, leaving College Park at like midnight. We walk to the Metro station, take the subway. It was probably a 20 minute ride, not too far. We passed Columbia Heights, I believe. I don't remember the neighborhood Rob lived in, and he was probably a 20 or 30 minute walk from the closest station. So we got off and trekked our way to his house (he was having a house party that night). What made it the most memorable moment for me was the fact that we walked through some of the worst neighborhoods I had ever seen in my life after we got out of the station. I grew up in Oakland, California, and we certainly have plenty of problems there. I didn't grow up in the best neighborhoods, myself. But that walk that night, that we took at midnight, all 20 or 30 of us, gave me a glimpse of another side of America, so it was both sad and fascinating at the same time. As bad as Oakland was, I never saw a street with torn-down buildings where homeless people are burning fires to keep warm.(California weather is also warmer, which is another factor, of course). Of course, during our walk to Rob's, we passed both good neighborhoods and bad ones, and they were right next to each other. It was like passing night and day in one block. This only reminded me of the stratification in America, and it was quite interesting experiencing this during a weekend of an SSDP conference. I thought it was rather fitting, in fact. At the time, I thought nothing of it, but since then, I always tell everyone about that experience.

Where do you see the drug policy reform movement going in the future?

I just see this movement becoming more legitimate and professional and mainstream. When I got started, I didn't get a sense of drug policy reform having a presence or impact on the initiatives in voter ballots. I'm sure there were, but it was something that you had to look for if you weren't already familiar with the issue. What's been happening in the last ten years, and what I see will continue to happen, is that drug policy reform will become less controversial. It's a slow and painstaking process, but if you think about where we're at today, the image and effectiveness of reform work has really evolved. It's becoming more and more difficult to label us as a bunch of druggies who just wanna legalize everything so we can party. Organizations like SSDP bring students (many of prestigious universities) into the movement, and that alone shows that the future leaders of our country don't agree with this nation's drug policies, which is a rather strong message. With that, I'm sure we'll see more reform-related initiatives on ballots in the upcoming years, probably not a lot, but I think Prop 19 has paved the way, if not for most drug policy issues, then at least for cannabis legalization and regulation. Also, if the current leaders of the Office of National Drug Control Policy move forward with their plans, then we're going to see a system based more around health care, prevention, and treatment rather than criminalization and punishment. Again, this would be a gradual process dependent upon who the President is and who he or she appoints as the head of ONDCP. But what's been coming out of Obama's team sounds more promising than ever, so drug policy reformists may have greater opportunities in Washington in the coming years. As drug policy reform becomes more legitimate, we may encounter problems that come with the territory. Prop 19 was a great example of this;that the acceptance of our ideas in the political and corporate arena would create new problems inherent in those arenas. So it's going to be very interesting seeing how drug policy unfolds, especially if we're successful.