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Higher Education: Federal Court Dismisses Challenge to HEA Drug Provision

A federal court judge in Aberdeen, South Dakota, last Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Higher Education Act's drug provision, which bars students from receiving federal financial assistance if they receive a drug conviction while in college. The suit had been filed by three individual students -- two recruited by DRCNet -- backed by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project.

Under the HEA drug provision, nearly 200,000 students have been denied financial aid. As originally passed, the drug provision applied to any drug conviction, but under rising attack from educators, students, and civil rights groups, the act's sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) drafted a "fix" limiting it to drug offenses committed while students are in college. Souder's partial reform to the law passed earlier this year as part of a larger educational package. But that reform does not satisfy the act's opponents, who seek a total repeal.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argued that the HEA violated the Fifth Amendment on two counts. First, the group argued, by singling out drug law violators, the act violated the amendment's due process clause. Second, the HEA drug provision amounted to double jeopardy by penalizing a student twice for the same offense.

But federal Judge Charles Kornmann didn't agree. In his decision granting a government motion to dismiss, he rejected both Fifth Amendment arguments. Still, Kornmann agreed that the provision is unfairly. "It is true," he wrote, "as pointed out by the plaintiffs, that students convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana may be prevented from receiving federal student financial aid while those students convicted of serious sexual or violent crimes would not suffer a similar fate. However, the mere fact that the classification results in some inequality does not, in and of itself, offend the Constitution."

"This decision is flat wrong. It's completely irrational to attempt to reduce drug abuse by kicking students out of school. Putting up roadblocks on the path to education only causes more drug abuse," said Kris Krane, SSDP's executive director. "It's unfortunate that students won't yet have our day in court, but we will soon be heard in the halls of Congress. On November 17, hundreds of SSDP members will take our concerns directly to lawmakers' doorsteps when we gather in Washington, DC for our national lobby day. The Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act, which would repeal the penalty, already has 71 cosponsors."

At last report, a decision had not been made as to whether to appeal the decision.

Paraphernalia: Florida County Approves Tough New Ordinance

Head shop and paraphernalia store owners in Pinellas County, Florida, are in for a rough ride after the county commission Wednesday gave final approval to a new drug paraphernalia ordinance that will make it easier to win convictions than current Florida law. Under state law, people can only be found guilty of paraphernalia sales if it can be proven they knew the product they sold would be used to ingest drugs. The new county ordinance lowers the bar, requiring only that the seller should reasonably have known such use would occur.

Those convicted under the new county ordinance face up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500. Repeat offenders could see their business licenses jerked.

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pipe
The new law is the result of a county Drug Paraphernalia Abatement Task Force organized by County Commission Chairman Ken Welch last year. The ordinance follows almost letter by letter the recommendations of the task force's report issued in June, which claimed that drug paraphernalia "enabled" drug use.

Opponents of the ordinance showed up at the commission's Wednesday meeting to no avail. According to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, among those protesting the ordinance was Kurt Donely, executive director of the Florida NORML chapter. He said the proposed 60-day penalty was too extreme. "I would lose my house, my car," Donely said. "Something would happen to my pets."

Another opponent was Tamara Pare, 23, an employee of Purple Haze Tobacco & Accessories in St. Petersburg. She arrived dressed as a hooker, wearing red heels, a short skirt, and a halter top. Her attire, she said, was "a visual metaphor" that underscored the silliness of the "reasonably should know" standard. "Many reasonable people today might see me dressed like this and think I'm a prostitute," Pare told the board.

Her boss, Leo Calzadilla, spoke via videotape from his store, with shelves of water pipes on display behind him. The ordinance would be aimed at specialty shops like his when items that could be used as drug paraphernalia can be found almost anywhere he said. "This ordinance is going to do nothing but tie up our local courts system," Calzadilla warned.

But commission head Welch was unswayed, although he acknowledged the ordinance would not stop drug use. "It's not going to solve the entire problem," he said. "It's a step in the right direction."

Perhaps Welch and the county commission should be stepping over toward the county attorney's office because it appears it will be busy fending off challenges. "I'm still confused," Alan Berger, 51, co-owner of Balls of Steel in Gulfport, said after the vote. "Should I pull everything off the shelves? I guarantee you, we will fight."

Sentencing: No Retroactive Relief for Rockefeller Drug Law Prisoners, New York Appeals Court Rules

People serving tough mid-level sentences under New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws will not be able to get those sentences reduced if they were convicted before drug sentencing reforms took effect in January 2005, the state's highest court ruled September 21. In its opinion in the consolidated cases of three men sentenced under the old laws, the court held that the legislature intended only to cut the sentences of those newly convicted.

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not enough: Gov. Pataki signs Rockefeller reform bill, 12/04
Under the Drug Law Reform Act that came into effect last year, some 400 prisoners facing the most severe sentences -- up to life -- were allowed to seek retroactive sentence cuts. But thousands of prisoners doing lesser, but still severe, sentences were not explicitly granted that right. Three of them -- Thomas Thomas Utsey, Michael Nelson and Corey Smith -- appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing they should have had the same opportunity to seek retroactive redress.

But in a unanimous decision, the court said no way. The bill clearly stated that the law would "apply to crimes committed on or after the effective date," the court noted. "Under the plain language of the statute, the relevant provisions of the DLRA are intended to apply only to crimes committed after its effective date," Chief Judge Judith Kaye said in her decision. "That being so, defendants are not eligible for the reduced penalties contained in the new law."

It took years of dogged effort by a broad coalition of civil rights, prison reform, and drug reform groups to win even the partial reform that was approved in 2004. Now, the New York courts have strongly signaled that any further relief must come through that same cumbersome legislative process.

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