SGA Puts Pot Referendum on Ballot


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If deciding the new representatives to head the SGA next year isn’t enough incentive, students now have another reason to cast a ballot in this year’s election: to express their opinion on whether the university should relax its policy regarding marijuana use.

At its Wednesday meeting, the Student Government Association approved a referendum question that asks students whether they think university punishments for marijuana use and possession should be equivalent to the looser punishments for underage drinking.

“The overriding message is that we want to engage student opinion regarding the university’s current drug and alcohol policies,” said Chris Biggs, an SGA residential legislator and sponsor of the referendum. “We think this is extremely important because there is a huge discrepancy between underage drinking and marijuana.”

According to university policy, on-campus students found with marijuana immediately lose their housing and could face suspension and/or mandatory university drug testing. Underage students found with alcohol, on the other hand, are given a warning and possible community service for their first offense and must violate alcohol policies again before their housing is jeopardized.

Biggs, who is also a resident assistant in La Plata Hall, said he thinks this bill is important to students because the current marijuana policies can ruin a student’s life.

“I’ve seen far too many students getting caught, losing financial aid and housing and having their lives turned upside down,” he said.

The proposal was written by the university’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy leader Damien Nichols and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws President Victor Pinho. In its original form, the proposal was a binding resolution, which means if 50.2 percent of students supported efforts to change the current drug policies, then the SGA would have to do everything within their power to make sure the administration changed its policies, said SGA academic legislator Kevin Rodkey.

“This created some concern because 50.2 percent or even 55 percent of students is not a strong majority, and a drastic change in policy like this should be supported by a strong majority of students,” Rodkey said.

Rodkey amended the proposal to make the referendum non-binding. If the majority of students say that the policy should be changed, then incoming SGA leaders will have to decide whether they want to lobby for the changes.

But passing the referendum does not ensure a change in the campus-wide policy. “We would ask our people in the Office of Student Conduct to analyze the referendum and decide what the implications are,” said Linda Clement, vice president of student affairs. While Clement had yet to see the referendum, she said administrators always take the SGA’s recommendations seriously.

Devin Ellis, the SGA’s chief of staff, said a low voter turnout was expected for this year’s election. With this new referendum included, however, some leaders think that more students will vote, if only to help change current drug policies.

“The key element is that the higher the voter turnout, the more validity the referendum ballot will have as being representative of students and how they feel,” Ellis said.

When creating their proposal, Nichols and Pinho said that they based their arguments on the SAFER campaign. Several universities across the country are using the foundations of the campaign to equalize alcohol and marijuana punishments.

“The SAFER campaign is a relatively new project that works on the premise that while there are statistics to prove the detrimental effects of alcohol on society, there is no number in recorded medicine of fatalities from marijuana use,” Pinho said. “The campaign is based upon the idea of choosing marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol.”

While the university would be the first in the Washington area to implement such changes, according to Nichols, several schools in the country have already used the SAFER campaign to effect change in their administration’s marijuana policies, such as the University of Rhode Island and the University of Texas at Austin.

Sponsors of the bill said students don’t have to support drug use to vote in support.

“I am not a supporter of marijuana. I think breaking the law is a bad idea, but I think there is something to be said about the growing discrepancy between marijuana and alcohol,” Biggs said.

Source: Diamondback, The (MD Edu)
Author: Kelly Whittaker
Published: April 03, 2006
Copyright: 2006 Maryland Media, Inc.
Website: The Diamondback
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