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Feature: Students Lobby and Learn in DC as SSDP Comes to Town

Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the nation's leading campus-based drug reform organization, held its annual conference last weekend in the shadow of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. More than 300 students from 70 campuses in the US and Canada heard from movement luminaries, studied the nuts and bolts of campus organizing, took care of organizational business, and put theory into practice with a day of lobbying for drug reform issues on Capitol Hill.
media luminaries Bill Press & Clarence Page, with panel moderator Ryan Grim & SSDP executive director Kris Krane
After a couple of days of well-deserved post-conference decompression, SSDP leaders were ready to declare that the event had achieved its goals. "We think the conference was a fantastic success," said SSDP communications director Tom Angell. "We had about 300 students from across the US and Canada converge on DC to plan strategies for ending the war on drugs and its harmful impact on our generation. And this conference wasn't just about meeting each other and planning for the future -- it was about making change in the nation's capital while we were all here. We had 85 lobby meetings with members of Congress or their staffers Friday," he told Drug War Chronicle.

After being revved-up by a brief visit and pep-talk from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) late Friday morning, students hit Congress to lobby for repeal of the law that spurred SSDP's formation in 1998, the Higher Education Act's drug provision, which so far has barred some 200,000 students from receiving financial aid because of drug convictions, and other issues like student drug testing.

In several instances, while meetings were set with staffers, members of Congress made at least brief appearances. In at least two meetings, with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), students were able to sit down with the members themselves, Angell reported.

In addition to actually influencing members of Congress, SSDP's lobbying day had the added benefit of energizing the students. "A lot of them were really excited about lobby day," Angell explained. "This was the first time many of them had ever talked to legislative staffers about changing laws they care about."

"The whole thing has been very fulfilling -- I'm really learning a lot," said University of Maryland student Stacia Costner, who was one of more than three dozen Maryland students who showed up for the conference.

That made the Terrapin delegation one of the largest. Other states bringing dozens of students to Washington were Florida and Rhode Island.

But if the conference wasn't just about student activists meeting each other, that was still a big part of it. While much was learned on the Hill and in the conference's formal sessions, students took full advantage of their free time during the weekend to meet and greet each other, compare war stories, and share lessons learned.

Another student in attendance, Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, told the Chronicle students there were starting a harm reduction center. "We want to provide factual information beyond 'just say no,'" he said. "We want to help kids, and this conference is going to help us learn how better to do that."

"One of the most exciting things was that students from all across the country were able to come together, meet one another, and realize they are not alone on their campuses, that there are other students just like them working on the same issues on their own campuses," said Angell. "It'll be exciting to see what happens on these 70 campuses when the students go back this semester."

"We are trying to build a real student movement," said SSDP executive director Kris Krane as he opened the conference itself Saturday morning. "We are a force to be reckoned with. We are recognized in Congress as a powerful lobbying force and in the press as a credible voice for change."

Given the national political atmosphere in recent years, SSDP's road has been bumpy after an initial meteoric rise, Krane conceded. "The war on terror made recruitment more difficult, and the number of chapters dipped," he said. "We shied away from the anti-war rhetoric, but this is the true anti-war movement for our generation. The excesses of the war on terror were preceded by the excesses of the war on drugs. Whether you are talking about snitches, asset forfeiture, racial profiling, or mandatory minimum sentences, every violation of individual rights and liberties in the Patriot Act got its start in the drug war."

After Krane opened the session, the students had the opportunity to hear from many of the most prominent leaders of the drug reform movement, including an opening panel consisting of Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Steph Sherer of the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, and representatives of the Marijuana Policy Project. Sadly, MPP executive director Rob Kampia, the man behind the Nevada marijuana tax and regulate initiative, was taken ill and unable to attend. He was replaced by MPP director of governmental relations Aaron Houston.

"We are the people who want to smoke pot and get high," said Nadelmann to the surprised laughter and cheers of the crowd. "It's meaningful in our lives, and we don't want to be treated as criminals. But that's not all we are. We are also the people who hate drugs. We wish there could be a drug-free society, but we realize the war on drugs is not the way to do it," Nadelmann continued. "And we are the people who don't really give a damn about drugs, but who care about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, racial justice, and living in a society that ranks first in per capita incarceration. All of us believe the war on drugs is not the way."

Nadelmann delivered a chilling warning about the future of the drug war. "In the next five or ten years," he predicted, "incarceration rates may be leveling off, but more and more people will be controlled outside of prison cells. Drug testing is becoming ever more omnipresent, the use of electronic bracelets and GPS devices is growing, we are heading toward a total surveillance society," he prophesied. "Internal surveillance of your body and external surveillance of your behavior. Little by little, we become more accustomed to depriving more and more people of little bits of freedom. We are approaching a totalitarian society."

That prospect makes the struggle to end the drug war all the more critical, Nadelmann told the rapt crowd. "We are fighting for what is best for this country and for the values of the enlightenment," he said. "We are fighting for a society where nobody gets punished for what they put in their body absent harm to others."

One of the most well-attended Saturday sessions -- and one of SSDP's conference booking coups -- was the joint appearance by media mavens Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page and MSNBC pundit Bill Press, both of whom addressed the problematic nature of media coverage of the drug war. For Press, the run-of-the-mill, uncritical daily drug war reporting can largely be explained by reportorial fear and ignorance.

"Reporters don't know the issue and they believe the bullshit they're fed by the politicians and the drug czar," he said. "We've spent billions of dollars and it has gotten us nothing except a waste of money and full prisons. But reporters are also afraid if they start reporting seriously, they might hurt their careers."

For Page, it was less fear and ignorance than complacency and unawareness. "Most editors aren't against fairness in reporting in drug policy," said the nationally known commentator. "Our generation broke things open in the 1960s and 1970s, but there was so much movement toward decriminalization then that there is something of a false impression that we do a lot less marijuana law enforcement than we really do. The last three drug czars all told me 'we don't arrest anyone for marijuana anymore,'" Page laughed.

It wasn't just the old media addressing the conference. Some of the drug war blogosphere's brightest stars also made appearances. The Cato Institute's Radley Balko, author of the blog The Agitator, stunned students with his exposition on the growth of law enforcement SWAT teams and their permutation into essentially little more than drug squads.

"SWAT teams are expensive, and there aren't enough hostage takings and barricade situations to justify them, so we see a sort of mission creep where they are being used in less and less violent situations and are now primarily used for drug raids," Balko explained, citing his review of raids gone bad, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America." "There were about 3,000 SWAT raids a year in the early 1980s," Balko noted. "Today, there are 40,000 a year."
intellectual capital at the conference -- leading drug reform bloggers Scott Morgan, Radley Balko, Nick Gillespie & Peter Guither
Another leading drug war blogger, Peter Guither of Drug War Rant, joined DRCNet associate director David Guard and Common Sense for Drug Policy's Doug McVay in one of the Sunday nuts and bolts workshops. Guither, Guard and McVay interacted with motivated students in the session on how to articulate concise, effective arguments for drug reform.

This reporter spoke about Afghanistan's opium trade at another well-attended panel, this one on international dimensions of US drug policy. I was joined by Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies Drug Policy Project, who illuminated the adverse results of coca crop eradication in Colombia. Also on the panel were prominent academic drug policy specialists Mark Kleiman of UCLA and Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland. Somewhat surprisingly, the panel saw little controversy, as Reuter and Kleiman both agreed with the other panelists that US efforts to address its domestic drug problem by attacking drug crops overseas produce at best marginal results.

For reasons of length, no single report can cover everything that went on in three days of lobbying, listening, and learning. Suffice it to say that SSDP crafted a comprehensive set of sessions and activities designed to inform and energize its student base.

And the organization is looking to the future. "What are we going to do about race and diversity?" SSDP's Krane asked a sea of mainly white faces at the farewell session. "What are our goals?" SSDP knows very well what its immediate goals are, but it has also shown it realizes that a successful movement needs constant introspection, not just constant action.

Tell Congress to Restore Financial Aid to Students with Drug Convictions

Since Students for Sensible Drug Policy was formed in 1998, we have worked to repeal the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty, the law that denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. Earlier this year SSDP filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the penalty in the hopes of having it erased from the lawbooks altogether. Unfortunately, late last week a federal judge granted the Bush administration’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. While we are outraged that the judge delayed justice for tens of thousands of students affected by this clearly unconstitutional penalty, we're going to make sure that justice isn't permanently denied. That's why it is vital for you to tell Congress to repeal the penalty. Please ask your senators and representative to co-sponsor legislation to reinstate aid to tens of thousands of deserving students today by visiting Despite this unfortunate ruling, our fight is far from over. We are currently weighing our legal options with our dedicated lawyers at the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, and will keep you posted if we decide to appeal the ruling. The judge in the case acknowledged the unfairness of the law, yet refused to deem it unconstitutional, writing: “It is true, 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.” Clearly, SSDP and the ACLU strongly disagree with the judge’s ruling and believe that this law is highly unconstitutional and devastating to tens of thousands of would-be students nationwide. But with this ruling, the court sent the message that the onus is on Congress to change this destructive and unfair law. Would you please take two minutes today to write your members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education (RISE) Act, a bill to fully repeal the penalty, by visiting In a few weeks, during the SSDP Conference, we will follow up your letters by sending hundreds of students to Congress’s doorsteps to directly lobby their senators and representatives to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill. The RISE Act currently has 71 co-sponsors, more than ever before, but you can help us convince even more members of Congress to sign onto the bill by contacting your senators and representative today at Earlier this year, we convinced Congress to scale back the law, helping thousands of students with prior drug convictions get back into school, and we will continue to pressure Congress until we get the law completely taken off the books. Despite this recent setback, SSDP will not stop fighting on behalf of students to repeal this terrible law. If you appreciate SSDP’s work to protect students nationwide, I hope you will consider supporting SSDP’s legislative efforts by making a financial contribution today at Thank you for your support of our efforts to repeal the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty. We will continue to keep you informed about our efforts to battle this law in courtrooms and in the halls of Congress. Sincerely, Kris Krane SSDP Executive Director P.S. The decision is already starting to get some press coverage. Check out the article from Inside Higher Ed at P.P.S. You can learn more about SSDP’s lawsuit by visiting
United States

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.

Blasphemy: College Reporter Quotes Us in Defense of the HEA Drug Provision

Ordinarily a lame anti-drug editorial in a college paper would escape our attention. Not this time. Nicki Croly of The State Hornet in Sacramento uses statistics from our website in defense of the HEA drug provision:

Some people would argue that this law makes it even harder for minorities to get a college education. This argument is invalid because according to, there are no statistics indicating that African-Americans use drugs at a higher rate.

Croly’s interpretation of this statistic is just plain wrong. It’s true that drug use among African-Americans is equal on average to that of Whites. But arrests, convictions, and punishments such as the denial of financial aid for college are imposed upon people of color at alarmingly disproportionate rates.

Furthermore, I highly doubt that our site mentions drug use rates among African-American without also noting the disparity with regards to arrests, convictions, and sentencing. For example, here’s a statement from our HEA talking points page:

Minorities are disproportionately affected by the HEA drug provision. While African Americans make up 13% of the population and 13% of drug users, they account for 55% of all drug convictions. The disparate racial impact of drug law enforcement will inevitably spread into the realm of higher education via this law. Accordingly, minority groups have far higher percentages of their members who are ineligible for federal
financial aid than whites. Currently, more African American men are in prison than in college.

So yes, the HEA drug provision absolutely hurts minorities more than anyone else. But that’s just one of a whole host of problems created by this counterproductive law. Here’s ten more:

  1. College education is proven to reduce drug use. Therefore, forcing students out of college obviously and undeniably increases drug use overall.
  2. The HEA drug provision only affects good students. If you’re getting bad grades you can’t get aid anyway.
  3. Students arrested for drugs get punished in court. It’s not like they’re getting away with anything.
  4. Many students misunderstand the rules and give up on college even though they’re actually eligible. Their lives are changed forever.
  5. Taking away opportunities from students sends a message that we don't want them to succeed in life. All students must be encouraged, not pushed down.
  6. Regaining eligibility by completing rehab is often impossible because it’s more expensive than school. Nor does getting busted for drugs necessarily mean that you need rehab.
  7. Most HEA victims were busted for small time marijuana possession. Casual marijuana use has nothing to do with success in college. Trust me.
  8. The HEA drug provision fails to address the most significant drug problem on college campuses: alcohol.
  9. The HEA drug provision only targets low-income students. These are the very people the HEA is supposed to help.
  10. Judges already have the authority to revoke financial aid. If a judge meets the student in court and doesn’t want to revoke aid, we should respect that decision.

The HEA drug provision causes drug abuse by driving students away from school and towards drugs. If you support the HEA drug provision, you support drug abuse.
United States

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