We Just Won an Old Fight

Dear reformer,

One never knows when something good is going to happen. Last night, with the signing of the budget and stimulus bill, the drug conviction question on the federal college aid form was finally done away with -- students will no longer lose financial aid because of drug convictions, at least not automatically or in many cases. Congress also restored Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years. He and nine other congresspersons spoke at our 2002 press conference.
Our fight to repeal that law -- section 1091(r) of the Higher Education Act -- began in 1998, after the law passed and before it took effect. The effort was multifaceted and long-term. We circulated a resolution adopted by student governments. We founded the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), which worked actively through most of the '00s. Through this campaign, we founded the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an independent organization that plays an important role in drug policy reform. We even created a scholarship fund for students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

All of these efforts drew attention from the media and from Congress. News stories appeared in all the major US outlets, through a campaign we carried out in partnership with SSDP. Most of the news inquiries, by design, were steered to our student partners. But we did some too -- here's a New York Times story I was quoted in. The voices of people affected by the law were key to driving public attention and to gaining more allies. Our first student spokesperson was Marisa Garcia, whose story appeared publicly for the first time in Rolling Stone magazine. Rolling Stone went on to donate advertising space for the campaign.

Now former US Rep. Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years, sponsoring the Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act. He and his office energetically recruited other members of Congress to cosponsor the bill. We worked with them on several press conferences, including one in 2002 at the "Triangle" area of the US Capitol where ten members of Congress spoke, as well as representatives of leading civil rights and higher education groups. We also held a series of forums and fundraisers for the John W. Perry Fund, with members of Congress and other notable personalities. The Perry Fund supported about twenty students who'd lost their federal aid, and was covered by news outlets including BET.

Marisa Garcia in Rolling Stone magazine, 2001
In 2006, Congress scaled back the law, limiting its reach to drug law violations committed while a student was in school and receiving federal financial aid. Then in 2009, a further reform limiting it to sales convictions passed the House of Representatives. That was included in a Senate higher education bill too. The section of that bill that included the reform got stripped from the final legislation, after Democrats combined their student aid bill with the health care reform bill as part of their strategy to pass both in 2010.

What's interesting about what almost happened in 2009/2010 was that by that time, our work had already put the provision solidly on the radar of members of Congress. It was congressional staffers who contacted lobbyists who were active with the coalition that time, not the other way around, to tell them they were already planning to take it up and had figured out what they could do. We'd also been successful in communicating our message that partial changes to the law were good but not enough.

Changes in Congress made it less clear after that, when the next chance to repeal the law would be. It had also become clear to us that further work had to be done by groups with full-time legislative staff who could lobby on other issues too. We continued to contribute as we could to the effort, but we mostly left the lead to groups in education and drug policy and criminal justice who are funded in that way. I'm thankful that some of them did so and that this was able to happen.

I'm also grateful to people who supported our campaign, and to the many past staff of our own organization who poured themselves into it through the years. One of them called the news of the law's repeal "a random ray of light." But the unexpected usually isn't random -- it was made possible in part through work done by him and others. I'm especially grateful to the students and would-be students who agreed to our publicizing their stories. More of the history can be found on the web site for the campaign, RaiseYourVoice.com.

the language eliminating the drug conviction question
We have continued to do our work in much the same way as we did on our Higher Education Act campaign. We pick issues that are important but where there are important roles not already being played by other organizations. We organize coalitions. We do targeted work like media-worthy events and lobbying selected members of Congress. We find the pressure points where the smaller resources can make a larger impact. We support and build up our partners and allies, so their strength can be brought to bear on these efforts too. And we reach out for new allies, as the new issues we take on present those opportunities.

The last few years a lot of this work has been on the international policy front. We've organized nine events at official international meetings. The latest, on the International Criminal Court and the murderous drug war in the Philippines, was covered in that country's media last week. Our work before a major UN drug meeting was covered by the Washington Post and other media.

Click here, here and here to read about our work on human rights in the drug war, democracy and rule of law, the issue of marijuana legalization within the UN drug treaties, and other drug policy issues at the UN.

We continue to raise funds for our end-year $10,000 matching grant, on which we have $4,000 left to go. I hope if you haven't contributed recently that you might do so over the next few days. A donation to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, DRCNet Foundation is tax-deductible, and can be done online here by credit card, PayPal or ACH. Note that even if you don't itemize your taxes, under pandemic rules you can deduct up to $300 total above-the-line for charitable gifts in 2020.

A non-deductible contribution to our 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Drug Reform Coordination Network would also count toward the matching grant, and can be made here. This would support our congressional outreach, legislative action alerts, and the technical publishing costs for our newsletter.

You can also send a check or money order, if you prefer, to us at P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016. Please make sure to indicate whether it's tax-deductible for DRCNet Foundation, or non-deductible for Drug Reform Coordination Network. There's also info on how to donate stock shares on our web site here.

Thank you for your support, and the work continues.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016
https://stopthedrugwar.org

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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