By Samantha Schoenfeld
Devon James Stewart believes strongly that education – of all kinds – is vital to living a full life.
“I’m interested in learning different things. It’s the same reason why I go to school and why I travel – because I want to see different aspects of life from different point of views. And if doing drugs, or being under the influence could potentially cause me to have some sort of positive experience regarding my life, or some sort of thought, even if it’s one thought, I’d say it’s worth it,” he said.
In today’s culture, drugs are considered as taboo as premarital sex is to Pope Benedict XVI. But young militants—like Stewart, a junior in VPA—are fighting against laws banning drugs. To do that, they’re actively working to disband the stigmas associated with drugs and to free the drugs from the laws bogging them down.
Stewart is the founder and president of SU’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, or SSDP. Friends and colleagues say that there’s more to him than meets the eye: the passionate and hard-working Stewart is taking 21 credits, fighting for his cause in the face of a recalcitrant administration, and maintaining his family ties.
“He’s always there when you need something from him, whether it’s with SSDP or not, you know,” said Allison Glass, one of Stewart’s best friends and his ‘right hand girl.’ “He stays awake ridiculously long hours of the night and he’s just always there making himself available.”
The vibe that reverberates off of Stewart is that he won’t back down from his beliefs, whether they are controversial or not. He wears his hear in a ponytail, only adding to the hippie-esque sense that you get from him on a sheet of paper when you see his involvement with the arts, and especially with SSDP.
“He’s really, really opinionated, and that’s the reason he’s so determined,” Glass said of Stewart. “It’s that he knows exactly what he wants, he knows how he wants to get there, and he’s not going to let anything stop him in the way.”
Stacia Cosner, an outreach director for the national SSDP organization, could only find positive things to say about Stewart. He was one of the first chapter leaders that she worked with after getting her job, and she helped to invite him and other members on the board from Syracuse to the national summit for SSDP in Washington as one of five non-board members who were impressive enough to contribute.
“He really impressed me with his maturity and dedication to this issue, and, you know, how far along he was and everything…their chapter is growing really strong and I’m really proud of all the work he’s doing up there,” Cosner said.
Stewart is not the student that you would expect to be fighting the war on drugs. He is taking 21 credits, which he had to petition to do since SU only allows students to take a maximum of 19 credits. But people still judge.
“It actually doesn’t help at all that I have a ponytail…I’m taking 21 credits. I am not behind in my work,” he said. “I do everything that I need to do. I am running an organization that I just started, I am media director and DJing…and I get a lot of shit from administration when I try and go in there and meet with them.”
But that’s the point. Stewart strongly believes that the war on drugs is actually a war on race, or stereotypes. The disparity in sentencing from crack and powder cocaine, activists say, is racist. People must have 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence when convicted for having only 5 grams of crack cocaine, a chemically similar drug that adds baking soda and water to the cocaine and is much cheaper.
“And the people who are using crack cocaine are the people who are in inner cities, the people who are poor…And instead of helping them to make their lives better we make their lives worse by throwing them into jail and making it so that they can’t really kind of go on with their lives. They are going to have a drug conviction, and who would want to hire a convict?” he said.
Stewart got involved with drug policy after an arrest his freshman year of college for possession of marijuana – a conviction that was dropped in the courts because the car in which he was arrested from had no marijuana inside, and the cops had only charged him and his friends because the driver of the car had a previous drug conviction, he said. The police believed that the students had thrown the drugs on the ground, but could not find the drugs within a 20-foot radius of the car.
Stewart said they were judged because the cops were white and the driver, who was on probation, was black.
“We’re wasting money in the courts…and we’re not addressing the real issue here which is crime, and gangs, and drugs, and who we put our drugs in the hands of, and, you know, who do we put our legal drugs in the hands of. And why do business men sitting in suits in Washington get to decide what drugs are legal?”
Stewart, as Glass points out, is a complicated person. His interests range from music (he is a DJ on weekends and is the manager of a band that he plays in), to film, his major, to animals, to his family.
On his arrest he said that, “[the cop] asked me how my mom would feel, and I told her that my mom understands that I’m and adult, and also understands that the people in this country who make the laws and tell us what we can and cannot do are not always right.”
Glass said that Stewart has strong family ties.
“He’s really close with his family, his sister and his mom are like the two most important people in his life,” she said.
Stewart’s dream is to make a peaceful society in which people take responsibility for their own actions. That’s why he believes that drugs should be legalized, just as alcohol, Tylenol, and prescription drugs are now.
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone, I’m not trying to impose my views really on anyone. I think that people should be free to do what they want. And my views are my views and I don’t think that everyone should smoke weed, and I don’t think that everyone should do drugs, I definitely think that there are people out there who would not benefit from doing drugs and should never do drugs. But I think that if a person decides by themselves that they want to do something, they why not.”
Samantha Schoenfeld is a sophomore majoring in magazine journalism. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org