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Just like the global "Drug War", a victory on the battlefield takes little for the self-proclaimed warriors. University of Vermont (UVM) administrators and Student Government members have already begun patting each other’s backs after "averting" Saturday’s 4:20 event-the annual cop a buzz day. The pro-pot gathering attracted close to three thousand people in front of the UVM Bailey-Howe library last year.
This year’s new UVM administration (a place of high turnover rates) entered campus with a "get tough" attitude on the swelling 4:20 event. The Student Government was offered access to the administration budget. They couldn’t refuse to cooperate in organizing alternative events for the weekend. The event’s price tag is placed around $55,000, which likely does not include the cost of a notable appearance by local law enforcement agencies. Reports estimate 1,500 people attended the drug-free event. Assuming little marginal income was made from selling $10 tickets to non-students, that averages out to around $40 per person. Interestingly, about the same amount it costs for a "bag".
The unanimously White (not surprising Whites are far less prosecuted for drug use than Blacks or Hispanics) event isn’t characterized by students overtly calling for "legalization", nor an end to the "War on Drugs" (which some have called the "War on Us"). The hour-long event is attended for the smoker-solidarity, and predominantly for the overt party atmosphere, a public display that occurs at one of the nation’s top party schools. And an atmosphere that plays out in private behind University of Vermont dormitory doors, and in Burlington apartments on every other day of the year. Students cry that it is a noble tradition and promotes school spirit. I imagine there are likely other causes thousands of students could rally for. Acts of hate or sexual violence on campus come to mind.
I wasn’t on campus or even in Burlington on April 20th. But from what I heard and read, most didn’t let the University stand in their way from smoking on their "holiday". Some attempted to initiate a 4:20 on other parts of campus. Even people who stopped by to catch the free concert, headlined by Vida Blue, which features members from Phish, the Allman Brothers and the Funky Meters (perhaps not the culture our campus’ drug-warriors should promote), still smoked that day. These students were sure to do it the way University administration wanted them to: behind closed doors.
Students were forewarned ahead of time that police would crack down, so they faced the trend in the form of a question, "Education or Incarceration?". Fortunately for them, they were privileged college students and were given a choice of whether to get arrested or stay in school-not an alternative offered to most of the urban victims of the war on drugs.
"Education vs. incarceration" is an equation for increased funding by state and federal governments to prisons, and decreased funding to educational programs. Sentencing laws inspired by the "War on Drugs", like mandatory minimums and California’s ‘Three-Strikes’, result in more prisons and higher incarceration rates for drug and other non-violent offenders.
UVM’s version of the "War on Drugs" benefited various rock and hip-hop acts. In the real "War on Drugs", the beneficiaries of irrational decision-making and policy are arms manufacturers, military contractors, pharmaceutical companies, private prison and prison-related businesses, and multinationals needing an excuse to protect their investments in natural resources (need I say "Oil"?).
The casualties in the real "War on Drugs" are indeed us: the drug users and their families that don’t have access to drug treatment in a "get tough on crime" and "just say no" society; those who "pay" for it in taxes and loss of public services; and those in other countries suffering the true casualties. The people of Colombia, for example, are caught in the middle of a civil war involving a militarized government fighting a "War on Drugs" with heavy U.S. sponsorship.
So why do administrators on campus submit to this war? The decisionmakers at UVM can’t believe that potheads create a violent scenario. They can’t be concerned for student health or safety, because student’s smoked anyway. Their true motivation was giving in to political pressure. Fifty-grand is a drop in the bucket for the administration’s larger "public relations campaign" and appeasement of arbitrary threats from Montpelier to cut funding to the state’s public university.
If University administrators believe that it is justifiable to throw money to avoid pot-smoking events, and threaten students with harm and/or arrest from the police, and fail to create a ‘harm-reducing’ environment then perhaps they should know that they are not actually servicing students. Acts of hate or sexual violence on campus also come to mind. This sort of attitude has failed us, the D.A.R.E. generation, before. When is the money going towards law enforcement, criminal justice, unethical corporations and now rock bands going to go towards education?
Administrators have done a lot to clean the public image of the University, but have they really just fallen in line with the rest of the unreasonable drug policy characterized by the "War on Drugs"?
Aaron Hawley attends the University of Vermont. He can be reached at: Aaron.Hawley@uvm.edu