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Feature: Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress

Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.

What a difference a change of administration makes. After eight years of almost no progress during the Bush administration, drug reform is on the agenda at the Capitol, and various reform bills are moving forward. With Democrats firmly in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the White House, 2009 could be the year the federal drug policy logjam begins to break apart.
US Capitol, Senate side
While most of the country's and the Congress's attention is focused on health care reform and the economic crisis, congressional committees are slowly working their way through a number of drug reform issues. Here's some of what's going on:

  • A bill that would eliminate the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by removing all references to crack from the federal law and sentencing all offenders under the current powder cocaine sentencing scheme passed its first subcommittee test on Wednesday. This one was bipartisan -- the vote was unanimous. (See related story here)
  • The ban on federal funding for needle exchanges has been repealed by the House Appropriations Committee, although current legislation includes language barring exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools. Advocates hope that will be removed in conference committee. (Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.)
  • The Barr amendment, which blocked the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana law, has been repealed by the House.
  • Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's marijuana decriminalization bill has already picked up more cosponsors in a few weeks this year than it did in all of last year.
  • Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's bill to create a national commission on criminal justice policy is winning broad support.
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision (more recently known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which creates obstacles in obtaining student loans for students with drug convictions, is being watered down. The House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would limit the provision to students convicted of drug sales and eliminate it for students whose only offense was drug possession. (See related story here.)
  • The "Safe and Drug Free Schools Act" funding has been dramatically slashed in the Obama administration 2010 budget.
  • Funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's youth media anti-drug campaign has been dramatically slashed by the House, which also instructed ONDCP to use the remaining funds only for ads aimed at getting parents to talk to kids.

"All the stars are now aligned on all these issues," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I've never felt so optimistic about drug policy reform in DC."

Looking into his crystal ball, Piper is making predictions of significant progress this year. "I have a strong sense that the Barr amendment and the syringe funding ban will be eliminated this year. The Webb bill will probably be law by December. There's a good chance that HEA reform and the crack sentencing reform will be, too. If not, we'll get them done next year," he said.

"Things are heating up like I've never seen before," Piper exclaimed. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more reforms get enacted, the more comfortable lawmakers will be about even more. Cumulatively, these bills represent a significant rollback in the drug war as we know it."

Former House Judiciary committee counsel Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was a bit more restrained. Congress is just beginning to come around, and there are dangers ahead, he said.

"We're seeing windows being opened where we can feel the first breezes of spring, but it's not summer yet," Sterling said. "There are people asking questions about drug policy more broadly, there is more openness on Capitol Hill to thinking differently. Liberals are not as afraid they will be attacked by the administration. The climate is changing, but my sense is we're still at the stage where members of Congress are only beginning to take their shoes off to put their toes in the water."

What progress is being made could be derailed by declining popularity of Democrats, the drug reform movement's failure to create sufficient cultural change and a stronger social base to support political change, and the return of old-style "tough on drugs" politics, Sterling warned.

"People need to be aware that as unemployment continues to rise, Democrats will be feeling afraid of repercussions at the polls," he said. "If the economic stimulus does not seem to be generating jobs, if there is a widespread sense of trouble in the country, the drug issue can easily be recast as a bogeyman to distract people. Members of Congress could start talking again about 'fighting to help protect your families.' Those old ways of thinking and talking about these issues are by no means gone," Sterling argued.

That is why he is concerned about building a social base to support and maintain drug reform. "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change, and I fear we haven't done enough of that," he worried.

Sterling also warned of a possible reprise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the emergence of a parents' anti-drug movement helped knock drug reform off the agenda for nearly a quarter-century. The administration's effort to defund the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act in particular could spark renewed concern and even a reinvigorated anti-drug mobilization, he said.

"The administration says the Safe and Drug Free Schools program hasn't demonstrated its effectiveness and grant funds are spread too thin to support quality interventions, which may well be true," he said. "But little dribs and drabs of that get spread around the states, and that means a lot of people could be mobilized to fight back. The parents' community and prevention professionals will mobilize around these issues with renewed vigor," he predicted.

The Wild West show that is California's marijuana reality could also energize the anti-reform faction, Sterling said. "For those of us outside California, it's hard to fathom what's going on there. I don't think anyone back East can imagine a dispensary operating every quarter-mile along Connecticut Avenue," he explained. "I ask myself if this is growing in a way that could create a potential powerful reaction like we saw in the 1970s. There has already been a smattering of stories about marijuana use in school by patients. Will there be exposés next fall about medical marijuana getting into the schools, kids getting stoned? People in the movement have to be aware that very real and powerful emotions can be unleashed by these changes," he warned.

Still, "momentum is on our side," Piper said. "Webb's bill has bipartisan support, the sentencing stuff is taking off in a bipartisan way, and the crack bill has the support of the president, the vice-president, the Justice Department, and some important Senate Republicans. That's probably the steepest hill to climb, but I think we're going to do it."

These are all domestic drug policy issues, but drug policy affects foreign policy as well, and there, too, there has been some significant change -- as well as significant continuity in prohibitionist policies. And that situation is exposing some significant contradictions. Here, it is the Obama administration taking the lead, not Congress. The Obama administration has rejected crop eradication as a failure in Afghanistan, yet remains wedded to it in Colombia, and it has embraced the Bush administration's anti-drug Plan Merida assistance package to Mexico.

"The really exciting thing is Afghanistan and special envoy Richard Holbrooke's ending of eradication there," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "That's huge, and it has repercussions for the Western Hemisphere as well. The US can't have two completely divergent policies on source country eradication. On Latin America, I suspect there is a power struggle going on between the drug warriors and the Holbrooke faction. We need a Holbrooke for Latin America," he said.

The media spotlight on Mexico's plague of prohibition-related violence may be playing a role, too, said Sterling. "The mayhem in Mexico certainly created a lot of thinking about how to do things differently earlier this year," he noted. "The media climate has changed, and perhaps that's more important at this stage than the climate inside the Beltway."

But the Mexico issue could cut against reform, too, he suggested. "Where is all that marijuana in California coming from?" he asked. "If someone can make the case that Mexican drug cartels are supplying the medical marijuana market there, that could get very ugly."

As the August recess draws nigh, no piece of drug reform legislation has made it to the president's desk. But this year, for the first time in a long time, it looks like some may. There are potential minefields ahead, and it's too early to declare victory just yet. But keep that champagne nicely chilled; we may be popping some corks before the year is over.

Financial Aid: House Committee Lightens Up on Students with Drug Possession Convictions

For a decade, a law authored by Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder has been an obstacle to higher education for people with drug records. The Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, known more recently as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," barred students with drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time.

Under pressure from students, educators, and others in a growing coalition to repeal the provision, Souder himself supported a partial reform in 2006 that restricted the provision's reach to those convicted of drug offenses while in school, and further changes in 2008 to help motivated students regain their eligibility early. Still, pressure to repeal it completely remained.

Now, with Democrats firmly in control of the Congress, the provision is once again undergoing scrutiny. On Tuesday, the House Education and Labor Committee voted to further shrink the provision's impact by limiting it only to students who are convicted of selling drugs, not those convicted simply of drug possession.

The vote came as part of broader legislation reforming the student loan system. That legislation must still pass the House and the Senate before the reform takes place. The committee turned back an amendment by Souder to strip the language reforming the drug provision by a vote of 20-27.

Press Release: Congress and Obama Administration Embrace Major Drug Policy Reform

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 22, 2009 CONTACT: Bill Piper at 202-669-6430 or Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 Congress and Obama Administration Embrace Major Drug Policy Reform Crack/Powder Disparity, Syringe Exchange Funding, Medical Marijuana, HEA Reform All Advancing Decades of Harsh and Ineffective Federal Laws Likely to be Dismantled this Year At least four of the worst excesses of the federal war on drugs appear likely to be rolled back this year – the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, the federal ban on the funding of syringe exchange programs, the all-out federal war on medical marijuana, and the HEA AID Elimination Penalty. All four reforms are advancing quickly in Congress. “Policymakers from the President of the United States on down are calling for a paradigm shift so drug use is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, allowing the District of Columbia to move forward with medical marijuana, and reforming the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty are all examples of pairing action with rhetoric.” The House Crime Subcommittee is expected to pass legislation today eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that punishes crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. Both President Obama and Vice-President Biden have spoken in support of eliminating the disparity. In numerous statements this year, Justice Department officials have called on Congress to eliminate the disparity this year. Last week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee repealed the 20-year ban prohibiting states from spending their share of HIV/AIDS prevention money on syringe exchanges program to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. The full U.S. House takes up the underlying bill later this week. The ban is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. If the ban is not repealed, as many as 300,000 Americans could contract HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C over the next decade. President Obama called for elimination of the ban on the campaign trail. In legislation last week, the U.S. House repealed a provision of federal law that overturned a medical marijuana law approved by Washington, DC voters, setting the stage for the nation’s capital to make marijuana available to cancer, AIDS, and other patients, possibly as soon as next year. Earlier this year Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Justice Department would no longer arrest medical marijuana patients, caregivers and providers, even if they violated federal law, as long as they were following the laws of their states. 13 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, but the Bush Administration raided medical marijuana dispensaries and made numerous arrests and prosecutions. In a vote yesterday, the House Education and Labor Committee reformed the HEA AID Elimination Penalty that denies loans and other financial assistance to students convicted of drug law offenses, including simple marijuana possession. Since 1998, more than 180,000 students have lost aid and many, no doubt, have been forced to drop out of college. Although the Obama Administration has not stated where it stands on the underlying law, it has said it wants to remove a question from financial aid applications that ask students if they have ever been convicted of a drug crime. In other drug policy news, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas) have introduced bi-partisan legislation to decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use. Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, has introduced bipartisan legislation to create a national commission to study the U.S. criminal justice system and make recommendations on how to reduce the number of Americans behind bars, with a particular emphasis on reforming drug laws. Almost a third of U.S. Senators are cosponsors of the bipartisan bill and it is expected to pass the Senate sometime this year. “The ice is starting to crack,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The decades of harsh and ineffective laws that have led to overstuffed prisons and a growing HIV epidemic are starting to be challenged and hopefully soon dismantled.” ###

Feature: The Kids Are Alright -- The SSDP 10th International Conference

Buoyed by this month's election results and jazzed by the prospects for change with a new administration in Washington, some 450 student activists converged on the University of Maryland campus in College Park last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the group's annual international conference.
first evening gathering (photo courtesy
Hosted by University of Maryland SSDP, traditionally one of the national group's staunchest chapters, the conference saw students come from across the nation and at least two foreign countries for three days of education, training in effective activism, and hands-on lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the attendees were representatives of Canadian SSDP, buoyed by their own national conference, the organization's second, attended by 250 people earlier this month.

For both SSDP veterans and newcomers alike, the conference provided opportunities for networking, inspiration, and education. For some of the younger attendees, it was an eye-opener.

"I didn't realize how many people were involved in this," said SSDP national office intern Ericha Richards, a freshman at American University. "It's exciting!"

Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire has been attending for several years, but still found plenty to get excited about. "It's always good to come to national, to see what the other chapters have been up to, and to meet old friends," he said. "And we're always looking for new ideas to take back with us."

On Friday, led by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbyist Aaron Houston, the students spent the morning polishing up on lobbying basics, then visited with representatives or their staffers to push for reductions in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Students reported mixed results, but that's no surprise, and even with representatives on the wrong side of the issues, lobbying is part of changing minds -- and votes.
Rep. Danny Davis (photo courtesy
On Saturday and Sunday, students gathered at the University of Maryland student union for two days of panels and training in activism. Saturday morning, they heard from movement leaders, who described the chances of drug reform at the federal level in coming years with varying degrees of optimism. With the Democratic sweep of the presidency and the Congress, the prospects have improved, but big obstacles remain, the students heard.

"This election was about change," said MPP's Houston. "It's a very exciting time, so why aren't we doing back flips?" he asked. Drug reform may get short shrift in an Obama administration faced with a free-falling economy and foreign crises, Houston answered himself. "We're walking into favorable conditions, but there are a lot of issues facing Obama and the Congress."

But the economic crisis could lead to opportunity, he said. "We have huge economic problems, and this could be the time to start talking about taxing and regulating marijuana. That could generate $10 to $14 billion a year for the federal treasury," he said.

"Change is going to happen," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. Wolf ticked off an ACLU reform wish list of rescheduling marijuana, ending the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes, ending the selective prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers, abolishing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, and banning racial profiling.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the prospects for change in Congress," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), citing support for ending the federal funding ban on syringe exchange and reducing or eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity among highly placed Democrats. "We are over the hump," the Capitol Hill veteran said. "People are not afraid any more to talk about drug policy, and we have key committee chairs on our side. We will repeal the syringe ban and reduce sentencing disparities," he predicted.
police militarization panel, featuring Reason's Radley Balko, executive director David Borden, SWAT raid victim Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, moderated by Alison Grimmer of Roosevelt University SSDP
But Piper was also looking just a bit further down the road then next year's Congress. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) comes up for reauthorization in 2010, he noted. Rather than try futilely to eliminate the office, "we can try to shift ONDCP's goals" to a more public health-oriented approach, he suggested.

"Marijuana is more popular than the past three presidents," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a cheering audience as he recounted this year's victories for medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Student activists took no back seat to the professionals, though, and the breadth of reform efforts by SSDP chapters, and number of campuses leading or helping with them was impressive. Conference-goers got to hear about campus campaigns ranging from establishing safe ride programs (reducing intoxicated driving without exposing students to threat of penalty); good Samaritan overdose policies (neither the student needing medical help nor the student reporting it facing threat of arrest); getting schools to stop calling police into dorms for drug infractions; reforming dorm eviction policies for substance violations; working with ballot initiative campaigns such as those in Michigan and Berkeley; public education efforts; and state lobbying campaign; among others.

One chapter, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, seemed to have done almost everything, and all during its first year. At the annual Awards Banquet, where representatives received the Outstanding Chapter Award, a raft of impressive achievements were listed off in the introduction. Not only did Kalamazoo SSDP get a safe ride program established, and Good Samaritan and not calling police into dorms for minor drug violation policies established. They also went outside the campus to bring together a coalition of community groups, government agencies and law enforcement to get approval for a needle exchange program in the city for the first time.

One highlight of the conference was the Saturday lunch debate between SSDP executive director Kris Krane and Kevin Sabet of Students Taking Action Not Drugs. The back and forth between the two, moderated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, kept the audience rapt -- and scoring the debate like a boxing match.
Krane/Sabet debate, Washington Post's Courtland Milloy moderating
Sabet, in what must have felt like hostile territory, did his best to try to establish "common ground" with drug reformers, citing his support for addressing the crack/powder disparity and qualifying some of drug czar John Walters' policies as "stupid politics." He also cited as models programs like North Carolina's Project HOPE, where probationers and parolees confronted by positive drug tests are not sent back to prison, but are hit with quick, short jail stays. "That's a huge motivation," Sabet argued.

If Sabet was looking for agreement from Krane or the audience, he didn't find much of it. "Our metrics in the war on drugs are wrong," said Krane. "We should be measuring abuse, problem use, infection rates -- not drug use rates," he argued. "You have to get arrested to get treatment, and that's backwards," he said.

Instead of being based on the Holy Grail of reducing drug use, drug policy should have different guiding principles, Krane argued. "First, no one should be punished for using drugs absent harm to others. Second, we should adopt a harm reduction framework, and third, we should adopt a human rights framework."

"Drug use doesn't occur in a vacuum," Sabet retorted. "A lot of drug use is problematic, and some of that can be addressed by dealing with poverty, health care, and homelessness. There is common ground," he tried again.

Not so quick, Krane replied, arguing that drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not the purview of law enforcement.

"Drug trafficking is not a public health problem, it's a law enforcement problem," Sabet countered.

"Drug trafficking is a prohibition problem, not a law enforcement problem," Krane retorted to cheers from the crowd.
David Guard and Pete Guither prepare for ''Elevator Arguments'' panel
After the spirited back and forth between Sabet and Krane, attendees were treated to an address by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who zeroed in on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. "One of the most egregious aspects of our drug policy is the racial inequity," he said, reeling off the now familiar statistics about African-Americans sucked into the drug war incarceration machine and urging support for re-entry and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. "If we can reduce crime and recidivism, if we can help these prisoners, if we can train and educate them, we are helping all of America," Davis said.

Davis, too, pronounced himself optimistic. "There is a sense of hope that we can develop a sane policy in the way we treat drugs," he told the students, "but you have to stay engaged and involved. You have to believe change is not only possible, it's inevitable."

If Saturday was a day of panelists and speechifying, Sunday was for getting down to nuts and bolts as the young activists attended a plethora of sessions hosted by more experienced veterans. Students heard presentations on best practices for chapter organizing, fundraising, making quick reform arguments, networking, working the media, and working with youth communities, and looking beyond campus reform, among others. And the lunch session was a working one, with activists dividing up geographically and deciding on locations for regional conferences to be held in the spring.

From its beginning with a handful of students in the Northeast in 1998 outraged by the Higher Education Act's drug provision, SSDP has grown to an international organization with 140 campus chapters in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. With all they learned at this year's conference, the newest generation of drug reform activists is now headed back home to spread the message and the movement to the next generation.

Visit the Drug WarRant blog for Pete Guither's seven-part series of live-written reports from the conference.

UMD SSDP window, Stamp Student Center

Feature: Scholarship Fund Honoring 9/11 Hero John W. Perry Assists More Students Losing Financial Aid Because of Drug Convictions

A decade ago, Congress approved an amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) authored by arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). That amendment, variously known as the HEA drug provision or the Aid Elimination Penalty, denied loans, grants, even work study jobs to would-be students with drug convictions. Since its inception, more than 200,000 would-be students have been denied aid, and an unknown number have simply not applied, believing rightly or wrongly that they would not be eligible.
In response to the amendment, (DRCNet), in association with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group founded as a result of the drug provision, and other friends of civil liberties and believers in the value of higher education, founded the John W. Perry Fund to provide financial assistance to students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

The fund reflects the goals and views of its namesake, New York City Police Officer John William Perry, a Libertarian Party and ACLU activist who often spoke out against the war on drugs. In addition to wearing the NYPD uniform, Perry was also a lawyer, athlete, actor, linguist, and humanitarian. He was filing his retirement papers at One Police Plaza when the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He rushed at once to the scene, where he died attempting to help others.

The Perry Fund has its goal not only providing educational opportunities to those denied them by the provision, but also to raise the issue of the provision's unfair and counterproductive consequences, and ultimately, to repeal the Souder amendment entirely. Although some progress has been made it scaling back the drug provision, it is still on the books. Two years ago, in response to a rising clamor for repeal from the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Rep. Souder himself offered an amendment that would restrict the loss of aid eligibility to people who were already in school and receiving aid when arrested.

Efforts to win outright repeal as part of HEA reauthorization faltered this year when House Democrats failed to act when push came to shove. However, future applicants will have the opportunity to regain eligibility by passing two unannounced drug tests administered by a treatment program. Depending on how this is implemented, it could create a shorter and less expensive way for students to regain their financial aid.

"We regret that the Perry Fund remains necessary because Congress has not fully repealed its ill-conceived anti-financial aid law," said David Borden, executive director of DRCNet and founder of the Fund. "Along with helping a few deserving students each year, the fund also makes a statement -- we don't just think this is a bad law, we're actually handing out scholarships to individuals targeted by the government's drug war. We don't believe people should lose their financial aid because of drug convictions," he said.

With only partial reforms, there is still a sizable pool of potential HEA drug provision victims. This semester, the Perry Fund is helping two of them.
Brandi McClamrock
Brandi McClamrock attends Forsyth Technical Community College for Healthcare Management in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After being arrested in a pot bust, she found herself ineligible for financial aid.

"I was in school, and my roommate was dealing pot, and I helped her and one of her customers out by giving him a couple of bags," said McClamrock. "My roommate was setting me up; she had been busted and the cops offered her a deal: If she could get them somebody bigger, they would drop the charges. The cops raided my house and arrested me and charged me with three felonies, even though it was all less than an ounce."

After two years of court dates and legal expenses, McClamrock pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession with the intent to distribute. She escaped without jail time, but had to serve two years of unsupervised probation. But the consequences of her marijuana conviction were just beginning to be felt.

"I started getting turned down for jobs because of my criminal record," she said. "I've been waiting tables because I couldn't get a job in my field, so I decided to go back to school in health care management at my local community college. I can't afford to pay for college -- I can barely pay my own bills -- but when I filled out the FAFSA, they denied me."

That was a huge disappointment, said McClamrock. "I had no idea they weren't going to let me have financial aid because of that. I'm 25 years old, my criminal record is holding me back, and now I can't even go back to school? Even when I'm trying to better myself and my prospects?"

Fortunately for McClamrock, an advisor suggested she look online for scholarships she could apply for, and she found the Perry Fund. While the amount she received from the Fund was only in the hundreds of dollars, it was critical. "It was absolutely the difference between me being in school and not being in school," she said. "This is a really good thing."
Matt Daigle
Matt Daigle is in his second year at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida, where is taking pre-chiropractic courses. He was also in school when he got busted selling marijuana to an undercover agent. He is this year's second Perry Fund recipient.

"I was ineligible for assistance for two years," he said. "I took a full semester off to work, then paid for one class last semester, but now I can afford to go back. One of the counselors at the college went online and found the Perry Fund, and it was really a big help. I only have one more semester of ineligibility for financial aid, and this is keeping me in school until then," said a pleased Daigle.

"The Fund is really a big help for a lot of people," he said. "The way that law is, they want to punish you. They want you to be a better person, but then they make it more difficult to do that. The Perry Fund lets you know there are people backing you up, and I'm grateful for that."

"These students have been sent to jail or prison, they've paid fines, they've paid lawyers, they've spent countless hours resolving their legal situations," said Borden. "Why, after all of that punishment already handed down, should they continue to get treated differently?"

"It's not just that we oppose having drug prohibition, which I do, and John Perry also did very strongly," Borden continued. "But this is also a second punishment of people who have already been punished by the criminal justice system. Staying in school to finish your education is almost by definition a positive step. It's foolish to make that more difficult."

Outright repeal -- not more limited reform -- is necessary for another reason, too, said Borden. "As long as this law is on the books, large numbers of people will continue to mistakenly assume they are permanently ineligible for financial aid. Many people just assume the worst, and having this law on the books just winds up pushing people to the margins. We get emails almost every day from people who think they aren't eligible when they are."

Don't let Congress get away with it


Tell Congress to Stand Up for Students

Tell your representative and senators that you are tired of the same old "Drug War" politics.


Dear friends,

Congress failed us.

Despite a decade-long campaign by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, supporters like you, and a large and powerful coalition of more than 500 prominent organizations, Congress finally reauthorized the Higher Education Act (HEA) last week but chose to ignore our demands that they overturn the provision that strips financial aid from college students with drug convictions.

How come?

Outrageously, staffers on Capitol Hill are telling us that some members of Congress were terrified of facing negative attack ads calling them "pro-drug" if they voted for a bill reinstating aid to students with drug convictions.

Even as Congress was debating the HEA bill last week, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the author and chief proponent of the aid penalty claimed on the House floor that his precious provision "has been much aligned [sic] by ***pro-drug groups*** around the country."

So you can see that one of the major roadblocks to reform is the false conventional wisdom that voters will punish politicians who do the right thing by repealing harmful and ineffective drug laws. 

It's up to reformers like you and me to smash this false conventional wisdom by standing up and showing politicians that they will actually win votes for doing the right thing (and that, conversely, we may punish them at the polls for letting their unfounded fears stand in the way of progress).  After all, it is this anti-education penalty itself that causes more drug abuse, right?

So no matter how many times you have taken action on this issue in the past, please take just one minute to edit and send a pre-written letter to your representative and two senators demanding that Congress stop letting senseless political fears keep deserving and hardworking students out of school.

Click here right now to take action.

And please make sure you forward us any responses you get from your legislators so we can track who is standing in the way of change.  Send those important responses to when you get them.

Despite this setback, SSDP and our coalition allies are as determined as ever to see this senseless penalty repealed.  We are already planning our strategy for the next Congress and presidential administration, and remain optimistic that despite the barriers we have yet to overcome, we will ultimately restore financial aid to the more than 200,000 students impacted by this penalty.  In the meantime, members of Congress need to continue to hear an unwavering message from constituents that the public will not stand idly by as our elected officials continue to deny access to education in the name of the so-called "War on Drugs."

If we don't speak up and demand change when legislators need to hear it most, who will?  Please take action today.

Thanks for all that you do,
Tom Angell
SSDP Government Relations Director

P.S. If you'd like to see SSDP continue to work on this and other issues, let us know by making a donation today.

P.P.S. If you are a student wishing to get involved in fighting back against Drug War attacks on youth, contact us about starting an SSDP chapter:

Feature: Higher Education Act Drug Conviction Penalty Repeal Stymied As Democrats Choke -- Again

A step toward victory turned to ashes for the broad coalition pushing for repeal of the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty") last week as, for the second time this year, key Democratic politicians refused to push it ahead. Now, the only chance to achieve repeal this session will come in conference committee, thanks to a possible tactical error by the bill's author.
Bobby Scott offers his short-lived HEA amendment this month
Earlier this year, language that would have removed the drug question from the federal financial aid form, but without repealing the underlying law, made it as far as the Senate floor as part of language approved by the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee for the years-delayed HEA reauthorization bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), however, offered a successful amendment to strip the language, which HELP Chairman Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as floor manager allowed to go through without a fight. Last week, House Democrats led by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Committee on Education & Labor and a supporter of repeal, declined to hear an amendment to their HEA bill that would have enacted repeal.

The Aid Elimination Penalty bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods of time from their conviction dates. As originally written by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), it punished students for any infraction in their past. But last year, under pressure from a broad range of educational, religious, civil rights, and other groups organized into the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder amended his own law so that it now applies only to offenses committed while a student is in school and receiving aid.

Under the provision, more than 200,000 students have been denied financial aid. An unknown number have been deterred from even applying because they believed -- rightly or often wrongly -- that their drug convictions would bar them from receiving aid.

Instead of going for repeal, as key Democrats had promised, the committee heard and adopted two amendments to the provision by its author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), which are actually seen by advocates as likely to be positive steps. One would require schools to inform enrolling students in writing about the existence of the penalty. Another would loosen a clause in the law that currently allows students to regain their eligibility for financial aid by completing a drug treatment program, by allowing them to just pass two randomly-scheduled drug tests administered by a treatment program.

The dispute over the Aid Elimination Penalty wasn't limited to Capitol Hill committee hearings. In a move to the blunt the efforts of the penalty's foes, Souder sent out a Dear Colleague letter where he accused the 500 groups that belong to CHEAR of being "drug legalizers," an attack that did not go unnoticed.

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

Taking umbrage at Souder's characterization of their organizations, 16 groups responded with their own letter to Souder, asking him to retract his statement and requesting a meeting with him to explain directly why they oppose his law. "We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, National Women's Health Network, National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

Souder didn't respond to that letter, but he did lash out again, this time at the Capitol Hill newspaper The Politico, whose Ryan Grim had been writing about the conflict. In a letter published in the The Politico complaining about the coverage of him calling people drug legalizers, Souder resorted to the very same tactic. "Your readers ought to know that Grim was previously employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a drug legalization group," Souder wrote. "Grim is hardly an objective reporter." However, he did not contest any of the facts Grim reported. Grim's biography, including his past employment, is available at The Politico's web site.

Souder has clearly shown himself to be a dogged defender of his creation. If only the Democrats had shown the same fortitude in fighting to repeal it, advocates complained. "It's disheartening that a huge chorus of experts in substance abuse and education, as well as tens of thousands of students are calling for repeal, and Congress still hasn't listened," said Tom Angell, director of government relations for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the point groups in the campaign.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, was less diplomatic. "By not changing this counterproductive policy, Democrats are saying that tens of thousands of students should be kicked out of college and denied an education," he said. "The American people have moved beyond the drug war hysteria of the 1980s, but many Democrats still don't realize this," said Piper. "They're afraid reforming draconian drug laws will make them look soft on crime, even though polling shows that voters are tired of punitive policies and want change." Democrats had "chickened out," he said.

In the House committee last week, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) spoke eloquently about the injustice of the HEA drug provision, but then withdrew his amendment to kill it, noting that the Chair was not prepared to hear amendments that would have financial implications.

"Denying students aid for drug-related charges is simply bad policy," said Scott. "It increases long-term costs to society. It unfairly targets poor and minority students -- minority students because they are traditionally profiled for drug offenses, and poor students because those are the ones that need financial aid to attend school. It only does drug offenses. It doesn't do anything against armed robbery, rape or arson. And so it's somewhat bizarre in its application and it creates a double jeopardy for students who have already paid their debt to society."

Scott then asked that a list of the more than 500 organizations supporting repeal be entered into the congressional record, and then he withdrew his motion. "Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, as you've indicated, you're not considering amendments that would have to be scored financially and because of that, Mr. Chairman, I will withdraw this amendment at the end of the debate, because we do not have an offset."

Then, after Chairman Miller -- to advocates' consternation -- congratulated Souder for his persistence in scaling back the law, Souder introduced the pair of amendments mentioned above. "Without objection, both of these amendments will be accepted," Miller said, accepting them without having written copies before the members. "It's just a testimony to the extent to which we trust Mr. Souder's word here."

While activists are disheartened -- to put it mildly -- by the performance of the Democrats, they still see some faint hope for action later this session, and it could come because Souder, by introducing his amendments, will open the bill to discussion in conference committee. "Souder may have screwed up here," said SSDP's Angell. "Because the House version now has language modifying the penalty, that automatically makes it a topic for the conference committee."

While activists want outright repeal, they are pleased with this year's Souder amendments. "If Congressman Souder keeps working year after year to keep chipping away at his aid elimination penalty, he will end up doing our work for us," said Angell. "We encourage Souder in his continuing effort to scale back his own creation."

Full of It: Rep. Mark Souder Souder Gets Called on His Characterization of HEA Reform Supporters

In an effort to build support for retaining his pet project, the Higher Education Act's drug provision, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) sent a Dear Colleague letter around Capitol Hill. In that letter he accused the more than 500 academic, professional, religious, civil rights, addiction and recovery, and other organizations supporting the call to repeal the provision of all being drug legalizers.

While there's nothing wrong with being a "legalizer," the vast majority of those organizations do not fall into that category. Now, Souder is being called on it.

The drug provision, also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," denies financial aid for specified periods to students with drug convictions. It originally applied to any drug conviction in the student's past, but with Souder's support -- perhaps in order to save it from a growing chorus of critics -- it was amended last year to apply only to offenses committed while a student enrolled in school.

With consideration of repealing the law pending in the House Education & Labor Committee, Souder sent a "Dear Colleague" letter reading:

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

But some of the groups Souder called drug legalizers wanted to get the facts straight themselves. In their own letter to Souder, 16 of those organizations asked him to retract his statement and requested a meeting to explain to him directly why they oppose his law.

"We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, the National Women's Health Network, the National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

While some signatories and key organizers of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform might be called "legalizers," as the above list makes clear, you don't have to be a legalizer to understand the counterproductive impact of Souder's law.

News will be posted on DRCNet shortly about the outcome of amendments offered in the Ed/Labor Committee late Wednesday night.

Top Drug War Advocate Publicly Humiliates Himself

On Nov. 1, Congressman Mark Souder (R-Ind.) sent a letter to his colleagues in Congress accusing hundreds of mainstream public health and education organizations of supporting "drug legalization." Now 16 of these organizations are calling on Souder to retract his statement and agree to a sit-down meeting so they can explain what they are actually trying to do. Is Mark Souder insane? Why would he attack mainstream public charities? I'll explain.

In 1998, Mark Souder authored the Aid Elimination Penalty of the Higher Education Act, a law that denies financial aid to students with drug convictions. Since then, a massive coalition of public health, education, legal, and policy organizations has formed to oppose the law. Their arguments include:
1. College education is proven to reduce drug use. Therefore, forcing students out of college obviously and undeniably increases drug use overall.
2. The penalty only affects good students. If you’re getting bad grades you can’t get aid anyway.
3. Students arrested for drugs get punished in court. It’s not like they’re getting away with anything.
4. Taking away opportunities from students sends a message that we don't want them to succeed in life. Students must be encouraged, not pushed down.
5. The penalty disproportionately affects minorities due to disparities in drug arrests and convictions.
6. The penalty only targets low-income students. These are the very people the HEA is supposed to help.
7. Judges already have the authority to revoke financial aid if they think that's a good idea.
Rather than attempting to understand these persuasive arguments, Mark Souder simply attacked and disparaged his critics, calling them a "small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups." He attempted to mislead his colleagues in Congress about the agenda of his opponents. And he did it because he's embarrassed that so many reputable organizations have condemned his terrible ideas.

It is no surprise that drug reform groups oppose the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty. is one of them. But to attribute drug legalization sympathies to groups like the National Education Association and the United Methodist Church just makes Souder look like an idiot. His bizarre attacks have now earned him some unfavorable media attention at The Hill and The Politico. Beyond that, he's alienated all of the top organizations working on education and addiction issues; groups he'll have to work with so long as he continues to saunter around ignorantly fighting the drug problem.

It just tells you everything you need to know about Mark Souder to see him spit on organizations that work to educate America's youth and help people recovering from addiction. And it tells you everything you need to know about the drug war's political leaders that Mark Souder is highly regarded among them.
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U.S. Government Encourages Drug Offenders to Choose the Army Instead of College

We can now add to our long and growing list of drug war grievances that this terrible crusade has become a fully functional army recruitment tool. The U.S. Military has changed its rules to make it easier for drug offenders to enlist. Meanwhile, the aid elimination penalty of the Higher Education Act denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. That's right, folks. The federal government thinks drug users don't belong in college, but has no problem sending them to die in Iraq.

Our friends at Students for Sensible Drug Policy have a great new video explaining the absurdity of all this:

Of course, we support the U.S. Military's new hiring policy. Past drug use should never be a factor in assessing a person's qualifications. But making it harder for drug offenders to go to school, while making it easier for them to join the army, is shockingly barbaric and hypocritical.

One can only hope that this bizarre situation may expose the fraudulent logic by which drug offenders are denied college aid to begin with. After all, military service is widely considered an honorable profession; one which requires great courage, character, and intelligence. The very notion that past drug users can serve their country in combat destroys the myth that these Americans are somehow handicapped because they took drugs.

Now that the U.S. government has acknowledged this principle in one self-serving context, it bears a powerful moral obligation to examine and abolish other forms of discrimination against drug users. Freedom, however one may choose to define it, cannot be defended so long as we arbitrarily injure and obstruct our fellow citizens over such petty indiscretions.
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