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Absolem violates no tobacco clause, loses funding

The idiom “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” should be taken with a grain of salt if Grinnell’s Student Government is funding your pipe … or hookah.

Absolem, a student group organized around hookah smoking, was suspended Dec. 1 by Grinnell’s Student Government Association (SGA) for violating the “no tobacco” condition of the group’s approval.

According to an email sent by SGA Services Coordinator Que’nique Newbill ’11.5, who oversees student groups on campus, Absolem was put under immediate suspension for the remainder of the semester, as well as next semester. They were also asked to return the four hookahs purchased with SGA funds.

In an email sent to Absolem organizers on Dec.1, Newbill wrote, “This email letter is to give notice that ‘Absolem,’ as a SGA registered club, is suspended indefinitely.”

When Monica Johnson* ’11 and Shivani Santoki ’11 first applied to SGA for group funding, they were allowed funding on the basis that no money would go to purchasing tobacco products and that the hookahs would be used only for non-tobacco products.

“When the matter was brought up in joint board, someone asked the question ‘What do we do if we find out you’re using tobacco in SGA funded hookahs,’” Montgomery said. “Someone else said it’s akin to putting alcohol in SGA funded cups, it’s a matter of self-governance. And that’s what we took away from the meeting.”

Hookahs are most often used for smoking shisha, a tobacco and molasses mix that is sold in a variety of flavors. Non-tobacco mixes, which substitute a blend of herbs for the tobacco product, are available as well.

However, when SGA was presented with a non-itemized receipt for student reimbursement, issued by the Shisha Shack in Coralville, IA in November, SGA Treasurer Gabe Schechter ’12 contacted owner Muhamed Ali to ensure that the receipt was not for payment of tobacco products. Schechter was informed that, in fact, the $60 receipt was.

“If you send a receipt for tobacco along with the assumption that you’re going to be reimbursed through the Absolem budget, it’s pretty obvious that you’re breaking the rules,” Schechter said.

Newbill and Schechter both noted that, while the receipt was not reimbursed, because the group had deviated from its original purpose of smoking non-tobacco shisha, action had to be taken.

“This group was advertised under this premise. Secondly, this group was approved under this premise, and so they changed that without notifying proper channels,” Newbill said.

Montgomery said that they had made a mistake by failing to notify SGA and said turning in the receipt for reimbursement was an accident.

“We exercised that autonomy under self-governance and decided to use tobacco, and not operate under any other pretense in meetings,” Montgomery said. “So the first problem was, switching our mode of operation, we should’ve told someone in SGA offices, that was our first mistake. Turning in the receipt was just a general mistake, you know, receipts were being turned in, it was just a silly mistake.”

However, Montgomery said she understands their position.

“We’re completely willing and accepting of the consequences, in that respect,” Montgomery said.

According to several members of SGA, Absolem’s budget approval had been contentious, and concerns had arisen regarding the group’s practices—namely, whether or not they were endorsing tobacco consumption.

Newbill said that he had taken a “more liberal” stance than Student Service coordinators in years past by granting Absolem student group status. He noted that potential clubs such as a beer-making club and gun club, or clubs that he said “are of a certain nature that could become legally problematic,” had not been approved.

“But I decided to be more liberal in supporting things like this so now it’s like ‘Okay, … nope. Nope,’” Newbill said. “So now they’re suspended for a semester, and nobody can do anything about it, because the Constitution only gives me power, and a student group can’t get money on campus except if they’re approved by me.”

The suspension of Absolem brings up an oft-ignored point of SGA procedure—who decides on the status of groups, and how that decision is reached. Currently, it is an informal process, with executive power ultimately landing on the Student Services Coordinator—in this case, Newbill.

The suspension of student groups is a “rarer than rare” occurrence, said President Ben Offenberg ’11. While Newbill acts as the executor for all student groups, it is essentially a cabinet-wide decision, including informal consultation with Joint Board, to decide on the fate of an errant student group.

“Cabinet came to Joint Board and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and we’re telling you were doing it, and if you’re really opposed to it, tell us.’ There was no formal movement or resolution,” said Smounker Senator Alex White ’12.

If the current process was deemed improper, White said it was something the Reform Committee, upon which he serves, could look at changing. Currently, though, he says it seems to be a non-issue.

“The process was natural for the outcome. I wouldn’t call it professional,” White said. “It works, but if people are really concerned about it, it certainly was not done in the best way it could be done.”

White said a change could potentially happen if deemed necessary.

“In order to suspend a group, maybe you should have to have a formal up and down voted resolution at Joint Board,” White said. “But it happens so rarely, that right now there is no rule for that.”

In the meantime, Montgomery said not much would change on the Hookah-smoking front.

“We’re saddened that we can no longer hold Hookah and make more friends, which we’d been doing,” she said.
However, she added, they do have another privately-owned Hookah and friends willing to put some shisha in their communal, hosed water-pipe—and smoke it.


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