The Indiana gubernatorial campaign between incumbent Democrat Joe Kernan and Republican challenger, former Bush administration head of the Office of Management and Budget Mitch Daniels, is tight and heated. But when Democrats in mid-August tried to raise questions about Daniels' long-acknowledged marijuana-related arrest in 1970, it backfired.
As a Princeton University student, young Daniels had gone down in a dorm bust, originally charged with possession of marijuana, LSD, and other drugs and "allowing the sale or use of drugs." He eventually pled guilty to a disorderly person charge for smoking pot and was fined $350.
Not surprisingly, as soon as Democrats began shopping old news clippings about the bust around to different media, an intrepid Associated Press reporter asked the Kernan camp the obvious follow-up question: What about the governor? Had he ever smoked pot? Well, yes, said Kernan campaign spokeswoman Tina Noel. But only "a few times in his younger days," she told the AP then, and used precisely the same language in an interview with DRCNet Wednesday.
The Kernan camp has been criticized for bringing up a 34-year old minor marijuana bust from Daniels' college days, and it is likely to have been a short-lived campaign strategy. But while the pot issue has been a draw between Kernan and Daniels, proponents of repealing a law that bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid have found an opening.
Sponsored by a US representative from northeastern Indiana, Republican Rep. Mark Souder, the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision is the target of the Coalition for HEA Reform (http://www.raiseyourvoice.com), a wide array of education, civil rights, religious, drug policy reform and other organizations recruited by DRCNet to seek its repeal. While Rep. Souder now says he supports reforming the provision to apply only to students convicted of drug charges while in college, that is not how the law is currently being read by the Department of Education, which administers it. But for CHEAR, partial reform is not enough. It has lobbied for the past six years for a bill sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) that would repeal the HEA drug provision outright and which had 69 cosponsors at publishing time.
With both gubernatorial candidates having admitted to marijuana use during their youths, and one having actually been busted for it during college (when a conviction if charged as a drug offense would trigger loss of federal aid even with passage of Souder's reform), CHEAR last week issued a press release calling on both to call on Congress to repeal the HEA drug provision. That press release became the basis for a news story and a scathing op-ed opposing the anti-drug provision in the Indiana University newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, and another story in the Indianapolis alternative weekly NUVO featuring quotes from CHEAR outreach coordinator Scott Ehlers. Most prominent of all, a column in the state's largest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, by columnist Dan Carpenter, ripped into the fundamentals of prohibition, citing the loss of financial aid for student pot-smokers as a prime example of its cruel silliness.
"I think this story has legs," Ehlers told DRCNet. "There is a national angle, with Mitch Daniels being Bush's former director of OMB, and there is a local angle with this happening in Souder's home state. And now the candidates are having to address the issue. We want whoever is governor to tell Souder to change his position."
While neither candidate is stepping up yet, both are having to deal with the issue. "He has been asked about the HEA anti-drug provision," said Daniels campaign spokesperson Ellen Witt. "What he said is that he believes in rules and limits and consequences when taxpayers are providing aid and when the conditions are clear and known in advance," she told DRCNet.
Putting a very fine point on things, Witt emphasized that Daniels was not actually convicted on a marijuana charge, and that he attended Princeton on an academic scholarship and was not receiving federal financial aid.
While Daniels is apparently willing to let other students suffer a fate that his favorable circumstances would allow him to avoid, Gov. Kernan seems to be creeping slowly toward calling for change. "He has not taken a position on HEA," campaign spokesperson Tina Noel told DRCNet. "But generally he is opposed to any effort to close options for higher education for Americans."
"Those are encouraging words," responded CHEAR's Ehlers," and we would like to see Gov. Kernan endorse full repeal of the HEA drug provision to ensure that students with minor drug convictions can go to college as well."
And the campaign to repeal the HEA anti-drug provision worms its way into the Indiana gubernatorial campaign.
Read the recent Indiana HEA coverage at: