Thursday was a big day in the struggle to repeal the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision. Authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) in 1998, the provision delays or denies financial aid for students convicted of a state or federal drug offense -- even misdemeanor marijuana possession. In actions coordinated by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) and the Unites States Student Association (http://www.usstudents.org), students at more than 100 universities across the country held actions to mobilize support for a bill that would do just that: Rep. Barney Frank's HR 685. And in a felicitous coincidence, a prestigious panel sponsored by Boston University School of Public Health's Join Together program, which "seeks to reduce the harms associated with substance abuse," assisted by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Substance Abuse, issued a report on discrimination against people with drug and alcohol problems that included a call for repeal of the HEA anti-drug provision (http://www.jointogether.org/sa/news/alerts/reader/0,1854,562623,00.html).
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, seven US representatives joined with student activists and civil rights groups to urge support for the Frank bill, which know has 58 cosponsors. Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), a Democratic presidential contender, Bobby Scott (D-VA), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Tom Allen (D-ME) joined Frank before the microphone, and Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and George Miller (D-CA) provided written statements, for a press conference organized by the Coalition for HEA Reform. Emceeing the press conference was SSDP national director Shawn Heller, and speakers included NAACP DC bureau chief Hilary Shelton; United States Student Association (USSA) president Jo'ie Taylor; attorney Lisa Mojer-Torres, a member of the ABA/Join Together panel; Youngstown University, Ohio, student and HEA drug provision victim Justin Marino; and NORML's Kris Krane.
"The law is unfair and discriminatory, because it only causes difficulties for lower income families," said Rep. Frank, adding "[s]tudents with drug convictions whose families can afford to send them to college without federal help aren't affected by the law. While I don't condone illegal drug use, I disagree with the idea of using the federal financial aid system to punish people who have been convicted of relatively minor drug offenses."
"African Americans compose about 13% of the population and 13% of drug users, but account for 55% of those convicted of a drug offense," said Rep. Kucinich. "The disproportionate racial impact of drug law enforcement should not be compounded by spreading its effects in the realm of higher education due to this law," Kucinich added. "Higher education should be a gateway for a better future for our citizens, for communities and all Americans. The HEA Drug Provision is destructive to our children and our future."
Rep. Hinchey said "[w]e need to repeal this discriminatory provision at once. It singles out students for excessive and inappropriate punishment. It also clearly discriminates against students who aren't wealthy. We should be encouraging those who have had drug problems to pursue educational opportunities, not indefinitely denying them the chance to improve their lives."
Rep. Miller, senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, wrote, "[n]ot only has this law kept thousands of students out of college classrooms, but it sends the wrong message to students seeking to improve their lives just at the time they need the help the most. We should not turn our backs on these students, but instead encourage them to stay in school and to succeed."
Rep. Scott told the assemblage that "we know this law won't reduce drug use, and it may even increase it." Responding to a reporters' question, Scott predicted the law's chances for repeal depend on how much members of Congress are lobbied on the issue.
Shelton recounted the NAACP's opposition to the law from its inception, expressing the organization's concern that "while the goal of this law, to ensure that drug dealers do not set up shop on our nation's college campuses with federal backing, was laudable, the result is in fact racially and economically discriminatory and adversely impacts tens of thousands of lower-income young adults that the Higher Education Act is intended to help elevate out of poverty and despair and into a full participation in our society."
It was Marino who put on a human face on the drug provision's impact. "I was majoring in Environmental Studies when I got busted for a misdemeanor marijuana offense. I wasn't even aware I had lost my funding until I applied and was denied," he said. "I worked a series of dead-end jobs," he added, drawing chuckles from Democratic Representatives after revealing that one of them was working as a telemarketer for the Republican National Committee. "I then found how out how ironic it was that it was the Republicans who pushed this law," Marino added. "I tell you this is an unfair law. I've paid my fines, done my probation, but I'm still being punished. I want to thank the members of Congress and the press who are taking an interest in this."
"Rep. Souder's 1998 drug provision of the Higher Education Act is unfair," said SSDP's Heller. "It disproportionately affects low income and middle class families because it impacts only families that can't afford the rising cost of college without assistance."
Frank told the audience he considered the movement in Congress to repeal the drug provision as representing the legislative process at its best. Frank recounted being approached by financial administrators from Massachusetts when the law was first enacted, and also praised the rapid growth of student activism on the issue.
Heller and SSDP legislative coordinator Ben Gaines told DRCNet they were optimistic the anti-drug provision could be defeated. "It is up for authorization this year," said Gaines, "and my sense is that nobody on the Hill wants to continue this."
But just in case, SSDP, USSA and other campus groups organized a national day of action to coincide with the press conference. "Our object was to bring attention to the issue both locally and nationally by coordinating the press conference with the national day of action," said Heller.
Actions took place at universities and colleges from coast to coast, using a diverse array of tactics. At the University of Rhode Island, it was a press conference featuring university president Robert Carothers, student senate president Kevin Lopes and SSDP chapter head Tom Angell.
"We are here to support that legislation [HR 685] and to ask for the support of Rhode Island's congressional delegation," Carothers said. "My record in opposition to the abuse of alcohol and drugs is well known to many of you. I do not take lightly or casually my position on Congressman Frank's legislation. Yet drugs and alcohol are, to paraphrase an old adage, the curse of the poor. As much as I oppose the use and abuse of these substances, I do not want to penalize those who choose to come to college to change their lives. That is what we are about, changing the lives of people who are then empowered to change the communities from which they come."
"Last night, we passed a second resolution asking our congressional delegation to cosponsor the Frank bill, and we used the press conference today to hammer that home," Angell told DRCNet. "We didn't get any cameras, but we did get the Providence Journal, the Narragansett Times and the campus paper. Neither Rep. Jim Langevin (D) nor Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) have been with us on this, and we're hoping the media coverage will help pressure them. We've also been collecting signatures from more than a thousand students and faculty calling on our congressmen to support the bill."
At the University of New Mexico, SSDP teamed up with the campus Hemp Coalition to staff an educational booth. "We talked to over 200 people," campus SSDP public relations director Cezanne Fink told DRCNet. "There were lots of people who were totally clueless about it; it was amazing to see their reactions. Faculty members were especially good. They want to see people learning, not be punished again for something in their pasts. They don't want a drug offense to get in the way of someone's education."
While UNM SSDP didn't explicitly use the day of action as a recruiting tool, it may have turned out that way anyway. "There were a lot of people who asked us to keep them informed so they could help out," said Fink. "We took down their contact information."
At the University of Iowa, SSDPers also set out to educate their fellow students. "We probably talked to 150 people over the lunch hour," campus SSDP head Kyle Fitzgerald told DRCNet. "I know we recruited some new members. Many had no idea what the HEA anti-drug provision was all about. When I told them, it was like, 'Whoa, that's bogus' -- and that's a literal quote from more than one of them." But it wasn't all support in Iowa City, said Fitzgerald. "There were a few students who called us drug dealing hippies, and even one who told us to stop doing drugs and go to school. That's what we're trying to do, I told him."
But Fitzgerald also used an innovative tactic he wishes would be more widely adopted. "I had done a panel on HEA with the woman who runs the financial aid office and she was supportive, so I went to financial aid and handed out fliers and spoke with the aid officers. The reaction there was excellent. These people can call their congressmen and say, 'This makes my job harder, and I want you to repeal the anti-drug provision.' That could have more impact than 10 calls from complaining students."
And Fitzgerald is keeping the pressure on. "I'll be attending the student senate meeting Tuesday night to make a point of reminding them that they need to keep HEA reform in mind," he said. "We are looking at passing a second resolution; this one would mandate all student senators to call their representatives on the next day of action to support the Frank bill."
And to add to an already impressive day, the ABA/Join Together report, "Ending Discrimination Against People with Alcohol and Drug Problems," joined the chorus calling for an end to the HEA anti-drug provision. Compiled by a high-powered panel headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, the report included the following recommendation: "People with drug convictions but no current drug use should face no obstacles gaining student loans, other grants, scholarships, or access to government training programs." SSDP national director Shawn Heller and HEA drug provision victim turned SSDP activist Marisa Garcia provided testimony for the panel last year.
The campaign to repeal the HEA anti-drug provision appears to be alive and kicking.
(Visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com/video/apr03-pressconf.ram for complete video footage of the press conference. Visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com for extensive information on the HEA drug provision and the campaign to repeal it. Visit http://www.jointogether.org/discrimination/ to see the ABA/Join Together report.)