Internship Puts Penn Student on Frontlines of Campaign to Legalize Marijuana

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460July 28, 2014

On June 18, Jelani Hayes, a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania boarded an early-morning bus to Albany, N.Y., with grass roots organizers from Voices of Community Activists & Leaders, VOCAL-New York, and others. It was her third day on the job of a summer media internship at the Drug Policy Alliance national headquarters in New York City. The day would be memorable.

Flanked by more than 100 patients, caregivers and advocates, Hayes and others from the Alliance traveled to the state capital to urge passage of the Compassionate Care Act medical marijuana legislation. They demonstrated outside the offices of the governor and legislators.

“We were holding signs with demonstrators.” Hayes recalls, “We met with mothers who brought their children who had seizure disorders and talked to reporters outside senators’ offices and had a press conference set up where a lot of the patients [seeking to use marijuana] spoke.”

Two days later, New York became the 23rd state to pass a medical marijuana bill.

The Compassionate Care Act allows state residents access to small amounts of medical marijuana under the supervision of health-care providers.

This summer, Hayes, a Moreno Valley, Calif., native, is living in Queens and commuting to her internship at the Drug Policy Alliance. She sits in on meetings and strategy sessions and does a lot of writing, including opinion pieces in support of the Alliances’ mission to promote drug policies “grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.”

Her op-ed, “How Competing World Cup Nations Champion Drug Policy Reform,” was originally posted on the Drug Policy Alliance blog and later picked up by The Huffington Post.

Hayes says that her internship is informing her research and has greatly influenced the direction of her thesis. She is a history major in the School of Arts & Sciences and a University Scholar, writing a history honors thesis titled “Legalizing Marijuana: History, Reform and the Implications of Our Limited Historical Consciousness.”

“The first part of my research lays out the history of marijuana policy,” she says. “In the second part, I will be interviewing leaders in the marijuana-legalization movement. Through these interviews, I hope to gain insight into these leaders’ own understanding of how marijuana became criminalized in the United States and their perception of the implications of criminalization for society. Ultimately, I want to know if they think the use of history is relevant to the legalization movement and if history should play a greater role in legalization campaigns.”

The research has allowed her to marry two interests, mass incarceration and the use of history by social movements and their campaigns for change. She says that studying U.S. marijuana policy allows her to address both mass incarceration and a rapidly progressing social movement -- the effort to legalize marijuana.

The issue of mass incarceration first piqued Hayes’ interest in the spring of her freshman year when she read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness for an African-American history course she took with Barbara Savage, professor and chair of the Department of Africana-Studies.

As Hayes continued to learn more about the U.S. criminal justice system and the role it plays in America’s War on Drugs, her interest grew.

“I became passionate about the consequences the War on Drugs has had on minority and impoverished communities and poor women of color,” she says.

She is studying how the history of marijuana policy in the U.S. could be used to promote legalization efforts and the implications of legalizing marijuana in the absence of an ongoing conversation about that history with regard to race, gender, class, politics, big business and health care.

Her research focuses on marijuana policy reforms in New York and Colorado and explores how the nation has historically criminalized marijuana leading up to the Nixon administration’s War on Drugs, when drug abuse was named “public enemy No. 1,” and how organized efforts to reform marijuana policy increased in response to what those in the movement view as failed, costly attempts at effective and beneficial criminalization.

Hayes’ research is supported by Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. Her internship is funded by the Fox Leadership Program at Penn.

In addition to her research on marijuana policy, she is studying for the LSAT. Hayes expects to graduate in May 2015.

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