SSDP Does New Hampshire, Part II: Candidates, Conventions, and Repealing the HEA Anti-Drug Provision 1/16/04

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The Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) national convention in Manchester, New Hampshire, is over, but SSDP leaders and members leaving the bitter cold of New England are convinced they have planted seeds of reform -- not only among the Democratic presidential candidates they targeted, but also among other student activists and groups who were present for the College Convention 2004.

"We met our goal of getting the presidential candidates to come out on the Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision," said SSDP acting executive director Darrell Rogers, referring to the group's core issue. Under a 1998 revision to the HEA authored by drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), students who have a drug conviction lose their access to federal student financial aid for specified periods. "We met six candidates and we got five calls for full repeal," he said. "We are also seeing that we have had an impact on the candidates. Howard Dean this week this week was asked on MSNBC about problems facing minority communities, and he started talking about white people with drug convictions having a better chance finding a job than minorities with clean records. That was two days after we talked to him," Rogers said.

Former SSDP head and new board member Shawn Heller also dragged something else from Dean, Rogers reported. "Shawn asked Dean if he would nominate as drug czar someone with a public health or medical background instead of someone with a military or law enforcement background, and Dean replied that he would."

The barrage of questions directed at candidates from SSDP members paid off, Rogers said. "We are educating the candidates whether they like it or not," said Rogers. "A couple of the candidates -- Lieberman and Kerry -- had no idea about HEA, and although they came around [Lieberman fully and Kerry partially], that hurt them in the minds of the students present because it showed they were out of touch with student and youth issues."

SSDP also made a media splash with its Friday night prank involving former drug czar and self-appointed moralist Bill Bennett. For Bennett's appearance, students passed out urine sample cups with labels discussing Bennett's desire to drug test students, including conference attendees. That incident was picked up by the New York Daily News, but that was by no means the only mass media interest, Rogers said. "From the candidates, the audience, and the media coverage, all indicators are that this is becoming a serious policy debate in the United States. We got a shitload of media coverage, and our media director Melissa Milam deserves some credit for that."

"This issue is going mainstream," said SSDP Outreach Coordinator Abby Bair. "The candidates were actually briefed by their aides!" she exclaimed. "And seeing things like that begin to happen is really energizing the students. I've had so many phone calls from students saying they've been inspired."

SSDP's success at bringing drug reform in general and repeal of the HEA anti-drug provision in particular to the public eye has not just inspired reformers. Also present at College Convention 2004 was a new, anti-drug student group, Students Taking Action Not Drugs (http://www.standnow.com), a wholly owned subsidiary of the prohibitionist Drug Free America Foundation. The organization, which at this point consists of a handful of George Washington University Students, says on its web site that one of its three key goals is "to challenge a growing movement to legalize and normalize drug use on college campuses."

While, as the Drug War Chronicle reported last week, the STAND students were outgunned and out-argued by SSDP, Rogers expressed a certain glee at their appearance.

"SSDP is excited to see a student effort to specifically oppose us, although I'm dismayed it took them that long to form," he said. "They are polite and well-intentioned, but when it comes to drug policy, we will eat them alive with our knowledge, passion, and honesty."

Editor's Note: On its home page, STAND is offering "seed money" for new campus chapters. Maybe you, too, could start a chapter. Pranksters, arise!

But while students enjoyed poking fun at STAND, SSDP's reason for being in New Hampshire was deadly serious. "I got busted with three joints at Mardi Gras last year," said one HEA anti-drug provision victim who asked to remain anonymous. "I got to stay in jail for 22 hours, I had to pay a $500 fine and a thousand in legal fees, and I lost my financial aid," said the New Hampshire resident. "I had to cut back to part-time for two semesters because I couldn't afford it," he said. He is only one of more than 124,000 students who have been denied financial aid because of previous drug convictions. "SSDP is a great group," he said. "I checked them out. I was interested in applying for the Perry Fund scholarship (http://www.raiseyourvoice.com/perryfund/), but it was out of money after giving scholarships last fall."

Still, in a sign that drug reform remains to some extent at least the movement that dare not speak its name, he is not certain he will join SSDP. "I support what the group is doing, but I'm also trying to build a career," he said, adding that he worried that he could be tainted by association with a drug reform organization.

Fortunately for SSDP, not everyone feels that way. In fact, at the group's board of directors meeting during the convention, there was a changing of the guard as three new student board members prepared to take on more public roles. Former national director Shawn Heller of a law school yet to be determined, Bindu Nair of the University of Texas, and Amanda Brazel of Wayne State University, joined reelected student board members Tyler Smith and Matt Atwood of Loyola University in Chicago. Chris Evans of the University of Maryland and Justin Holmes of SUNY New Paltz were selected as alternate board members. Atwood was also reelected chairman of the board.

"As a student group, every four years or so we are basically a new organization," said Atwood. "We have people rotating out who have been on the board for years and new faces coming in. It is a changing of the guard; we change half the board every year," he told DRCNet.

"But our mission hasn't changed," he added. "This year, the board modified our agenda (http://www.ssdp.org/SSDP_ROOT/9_SSDP_Agenda/SSDP_Agenda.htm),
but only slightly. We amended the section on urine testing to include student privacy rights, which also encompasses fighting school drug raids like at Goose Creek and searches of students," he said. "And we included some language about race and justice in our prison section. But repealing the HEA anti-drug provision remains our key demand."

If there are new voices at SSDP's national leadership level, there are also new voices at the group's grassroots. "This was my first national convention and I really, really enjoyed the experience," said New Yorker Kieran Riley. "SSDP's professionalism and organization and the way the people approached the issues was really admirable," the 28-year-old said. Although he is not currently in school, Riley told DRCNet he felt like he had a place with the group. "I got into this through friends at school and my older brother, and I didn't think as a non-student I would get too much involved, but this organization is impressive and we can't let ourselves be divided by categories like age, so here I am."

Riley is going to work at the state and local level targeting New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, he said. "Those laws are ridiculous, and now I am more motivated then ever to fight against them."

With new blood like Riley's in the chapters and new voices in leadership positions, SSDP has hit the ground running in 2004.

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