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Feature: Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress

Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.

What a difference a change of administration makes. After eight years of almost no progress during the Bush administration, drug reform is on the agenda at the Capitol, and various reform bills are moving forward. With Democrats firmly in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the White House, 2009 could be the year the federal drug policy logjam begins to break apart.

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US Capitol, Senate side
While most of the country's and the Congress's attention is focused on health care reform and the economic crisis, congressional committees are slowly working their way through a number of drug reform issues. Here's some of what's going on:

  • A bill that would eliminate the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by removing all references to crack from the federal law and sentencing all offenders under the current powder cocaine sentencing scheme passed its first subcommittee test on Wednesday. This one was bipartisan -- the vote was unanimous. (See related story here)
  • The ban on federal funding for needle exchanges has been repealed by the House Appropriations Committee, although current legislation includes language barring exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools. Advocates hope that will be removed in conference committee. (Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.)
  • The Barr amendment, which blocked the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana law, has been repealed by the House.
  • Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's marijuana decriminalization bill has already picked up more cosponsors in a few weeks this year than it did in all of last year.
  • Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's bill to create a national commission on criminal justice policy is winning broad support.
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision (more recently known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which creates obstacles in obtaining student loans for students with drug convictions, is being watered down. The House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would limit the provision to students convicted of drug sales and eliminate it for students whose only offense was drug possession. (See related story here.)
  • The "Safe and Drug Free Schools Act" funding has been dramatically slashed in the Obama administration 2010 budget.
  • Funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's youth media anti-drug campaign has been dramatically slashed by the House, which also instructed ONDCP to use the remaining funds only for ads aimed at getting parents to talk to kids.

"All the stars are now aligned on all these issues," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I've never felt so optimistic about drug policy reform in DC."

Looking into his crystal ball, Piper is making predictions of significant progress this year. "I have a strong sense that the Barr amendment and the syringe funding ban will be eliminated this year. The Webb bill will probably be law by December. There's a good chance that HEA reform and the crack sentencing reform will be, too. If not, we'll get them done next year," he said.

"Things are heating up like I've never seen before," Piper exclaimed. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more reforms get enacted, the more comfortable lawmakers will be about even more. Cumulatively, these bills represent a significant rollback in the drug war as we know it."

Former House Judiciary committee counsel Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was a bit more restrained. Congress is just beginning to come around, and there are dangers ahead, he said.

"We're seeing windows being opened where we can feel the first breezes of spring, but it's not summer yet," Sterling said. "There are people asking questions about drug policy more broadly, there is more openness on Capitol Hill to thinking differently. Liberals are not as afraid they will be attacked by the administration. The climate is changing, but my sense is we're still at the stage where members of Congress are only beginning to take their shoes off to put their toes in the water."

What progress is being made could be derailed by declining popularity of Democrats, the drug reform movement's failure to create sufficient cultural change and a stronger social base to support political change, and the return of old-style "tough on drugs" politics, Sterling warned.

"People need to be aware that as unemployment continues to rise, Democrats will be feeling afraid of repercussions at the polls," he said. "If the economic stimulus does not seem to be generating jobs, if there is a widespread sense of trouble in the country, the drug issue can easily be recast as a bogeyman to distract people. Members of Congress could start talking again about 'fighting to help protect your families.' Those old ways of thinking and talking about these issues are by no means gone," Sterling argued.

That is why he is concerned about building a social base to support and maintain drug reform. "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change, and I fear we haven't done enough of that," he worried.

Sterling also warned of a possible reprise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the emergence of a parents' anti-drug movement helped knock drug reform off the agenda for nearly a quarter-century. The administration's effort to defund the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act in particular could spark renewed concern and even a reinvigorated anti-drug mobilization, he said.

"The administration says the Safe and Drug Free Schools program hasn't demonstrated its effectiveness and grant funds are spread too thin to support quality interventions, which may well be true," he said. "But little dribs and drabs of that get spread around the states, and that means a lot of people could be mobilized to fight back. The parents' community and prevention professionals will mobilize around these issues with renewed vigor," he predicted.

The Wild West show that is California's marijuana reality could also energize the anti-reform faction, Sterling said. "For those of us outside California, it's hard to fathom what's going on there. I don't think anyone back East can imagine a dispensary operating every quarter-mile along Connecticut Avenue," he explained. "I ask myself if this is growing in a way that could create a potential powerful reaction like we saw in the 1970s. There has already been a smattering of stories about marijuana use in school by patients. Will there be exposés next fall about medical marijuana getting into the schools, kids getting stoned? People in the movement have to be aware that very real and powerful emotions can be unleashed by these changes," he warned.

Still, "momentum is on our side," Piper said. "Webb's bill has bipartisan support, the sentencing stuff is taking off in a bipartisan way, and the crack bill has the support of the president, the vice-president, the Justice Department, and some important Senate Republicans. That's probably the steepest hill to climb, but I think we're going to do it."

These are all domestic drug policy issues, but drug policy affects foreign policy as well, and there, too, there has been some significant change -- as well as significant continuity in prohibitionist policies. And that situation is exposing some significant contradictions. Here, it is the Obama administration taking the lead, not Congress. The Obama administration has rejected crop eradication as a failure in Afghanistan, yet remains wedded to it in Colombia, and it has embraced the Bush administration's anti-drug Plan Merida assistance package to Mexico.

"The really exciting thing is Afghanistan and special envoy Richard Holbrooke's ending of eradication there," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "That's huge, and it has repercussions for the Western Hemisphere as well. The US can't have two completely divergent policies on source country eradication. On Latin America, I suspect there is a power struggle going on between the drug warriors and the Holbrooke faction. We need a Holbrooke for Latin America," he said.

The media spotlight on Mexico's plague of prohibition-related violence may be playing a role, too, said Sterling. "The mayhem in Mexico certainly created a lot of thinking about how to do things differently earlier this year," he noted. "The media climate has changed, and perhaps that's more important at this stage than the climate inside the Beltway."

But the Mexico issue could cut against reform, too, he suggested. "Where is all that marijuana in California coming from?" he asked. "If someone can make the case that Mexican drug cartels are supplying the medical marijuana market there, that could get very ugly."

As the August recess draws nigh, no piece of drug reform legislation has made it to the president's desk. But this year, for the first time in a long time, it looks like some may. There are potential minefields ahead, and it's too early to declare victory just yet. But keep that champagne nicely chilled; we may be popping some corks before the year is over.

Press Release: Congress and Obama Administration Embrace Major Drug Policy Reform

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 22, 2009 CONTACT: Bill Piper at 202-669-6430 or Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 Congress and Obama Administration Embrace Major Drug Policy Reform Crack/Powder Disparity, Syringe Exchange Funding, Medical Marijuana, HEA Reform All Advancing Decades of Harsh and Ineffective Federal Laws Likely to be Dismantled this Year At least four of the worst excesses of the federal war on drugs appear likely to be rolled back this year – the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, the federal ban on the funding of syringe exchange programs, the all-out federal war on medical marijuana, and the HEA AID Elimination Penalty. All four reforms are advancing quickly in Congress. “Policymakers from the President of the United States on down are calling for a paradigm shift so drug use is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, allowing the District of Columbia to move forward with medical marijuana, and reforming the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty are all examples of pairing action with rhetoric.” The House Crime Subcommittee is expected to pass legislation today eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that punishes crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. Both President Obama and Vice-President Biden have spoken in support of eliminating the disparity. In numerous statements this year, Justice Department officials have called on Congress to eliminate the disparity this year. Last week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee repealed the 20-year ban prohibiting states from spending their share of HIV/AIDS prevention money on syringe exchanges program to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. The full U.S. House takes up the underlying bill later this week. The ban is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. If the ban is not repealed, as many as 300,000 Americans could contract HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C over the next decade. President Obama called for elimination of the ban on the campaign trail. In legislation last week, the U.S. House repealed a provision of federal law that overturned a medical marijuana law approved by Washington, DC voters, setting the stage for the nation’s capital to make marijuana available to cancer, AIDS, and other patients, possibly as soon as next year. Earlier this year Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Justice Department would no longer arrest medical marijuana patients, caregivers and providers, even if they violated federal law, as long as they were following the laws of their states. 13 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, but the Bush Administration raided medical marijuana dispensaries and made numerous arrests and prosecutions. In a vote yesterday, the House Education and Labor Committee reformed the HEA AID Elimination Penalty that denies loans and other financial assistance to students convicted of drug law offenses, including simple marijuana possession. Since 1998, more than 180,000 students have lost aid and many, no doubt, have been forced to drop out of college. Although the Obama Administration has not stated where it stands on the underlying law, it has said it wants to remove a question from financial aid applications that ask students if they have ever been convicted of a drug crime. In other drug policy news, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas) have introduced bi-partisan legislation to decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use. Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, has introduced bipartisan legislation to create a national commission to study the U.S. criminal justice system and make recommendations on how to reduce the number of Americans behind bars, with a particular emphasis on reforming drug laws. Almost a third of U.S. Senators are cosponsors of the bipartisan bill and it is expected to pass the Senate sometime this year. “The ice is starting to crack,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The decades of harsh and ineffective laws that have led to overstuffed prisons and a growing HIV epidemic are starting to be challenged and hopefully soon dismantled.” ###

Calling it Medical Marijuana sends the RIGHT message to kids.

Talking to kids about marijuana can be a daunting task for a parent. With 13 states allowing cannabis for medical use, and five others with pending legislation, the issue is no longer as simple as "Just Say No."

 

   

Children are not stupid. Indeed, they tend to be more aware than most adults, who, by the age of 30 have generally devolved into repetitive patterns of mind and behavior. We either engage in futile endeavors to preserve the status quo, or launch doomed attempts at improvement by endlessly rearranging “things" around us. Adults, as a rule, have lost true openness and presence of mind. Indeed, the actual present hardly registers on our consciousness, as we live mired in memory, suffer interminable rounds of discursive thought, and forge futile projections.

I admit, I don't give long shrift to adults (and here I include myself). We are as a lot, self-involved, suffer from petty motivations and believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we actually know something. The messages we routinely give to children are wrought with hidden agendas and confused communication. As a general rule, we believe that children must be shielded from life, which, to the adult, invariably means telling half-truths, downright lies or simply avoiding an issue altogether. Thus, adults propagate a vicious cycle of disinformation which ends in the sad and sorry shutdown of the self.

Telling children the truth, on the other hand, frees both the adult and the child. Initially, it frees the adult because we must actually confront the truth of a situation; and that truth is accessible only by a mind that has become still. Truth is arrived at, revealed not – sorry to say – by thought, but through detatched witnessing. We even have a phrase for it: scientific method.

What is this method? In the most simple terms, it is proposing a hypothesis, and then verifying or disproving said hypothesis through observation. This takes time and attention and therefore is not very popular. It is much easier to repeat hearsay.

Secondly, when a verified construction is, in turn, presented to a child, couched in the caveat that this has been my observation, the child is given the opportunity to a.) learn the scientific method, and b.) possibly apply this valuable resource to her or his own life experiences.

The trouble is, most adults are afraid of the truth. Oh, we believe we can handle it, but that children (or spouses, cousins, parents, bosses, friends, bankers, employees) certainly can't. Worse, we believe there is some personal advantage to lying. But lies are lies, no matter how we rationalize them.

Which brings me to the recent veto of the New Hampshire Medical Marijuana bill by Democratic Governor John Lynch. This legislation would have protected severely ill patients from arrest and prosecution for simply using cannabis as medicine. The bill which passed the Rhode Island Senate by a solid 14 – 10 vote, and the House by an overwhelming 232 –108, would allow terminally ill and acute care patients to use and acquire medical cannabis through government regulated “compassion centers.”

There's a good chance that the veto will be overridden. The tide toward medicinal use of marijuana has definitely turned, with 1/4 of the US population  living in the 13 states where it is already legal. At present, there are at least 4 more states vying to become the 14th, either by legislation or referrendum. Sadly, Lynch is apparently a member of the old guard of politicians who value political safety over common sense and the needs and desires of their constituents.

Lynch's stated reason for denying such safe access to the estimated 150 New Hampshire medical cannabis patients who would avail themselves of these services each year is (and I paraphrase) “I caved to the demands of law enforcement.” Strangely, on this particular topic, law enforcement seems to believe it has a mandate to influence legislation, rather than simply enforcing it. Why this should be so may have a lot to do with the fact that drug enforcement is the big cash cow... but that is a topic for another blog.

And so we come, at long last, to the statement that was the impetus for this particular rant. I quote Portsmouth Police Chief, Michael Magnant, identified in a secoastonline.com article by Michael Mccord, as having encouraged the governor to veto the bill:

“Calling it medicine doesn't make it so. It's not FDA-approved, and there's no quality control. It leads to higher drug use, and it impairs driving. I think it sends the wrong message to our kids,”
said Magnant.

There is so much wrong with this statement, in addition to that last sentence, that I hardly know where to begin. Leaving the ultimate truth of his position aside for a moment, I would like to point out the following:

a.) Calling cannabis a drug, doesn't make it so (it is in fact, verifiably, an herb).
b.) Suggesting that FDA approval actually sets a safety standard indicates that Chief Magnant hasn't read recent reports about acetaminophen.
c.) Saying that “it” leads to higher drug use is typical of the empty phrases in popular usage by drug warriors whenever this issue is discussed. The statement neither specifies what exactly is meant by higher drug use, nor what hard evidence, if any, supports this hypothesis.
d.) Driving, of course, is impaired by any number of factors including health, weather, tiredness, cell phones, hunger, eating, worn tires, radio, alcohol, looking at maps, talking, stupidity, and “FDA approved” drugs. None of these substances or situational occurances are banned outright, and only use of cell phones and alcohol constitute vehicular prohibitions in certain states and circumstances.

And finally
e.) It...sends...the...wrong....message.... to....our....kids.

Aaaaaaahhhhhhehhehehehehheheheeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

What is particularly noxious about the last statement, besides its vapidity, is that is is so patently wrong. How can any sane, rational person believe that categorizing, as medicine, a substance which relieves or eliminates nausea, treats glaucoma, alleviates pain, lifts the spirits, and reduces seizures and muscle spasms, is sending a “wrong message” to anyone. It is a true message, a factual message, a verifiable message, and most importantly, by classifying marijuana, or as I prefer to call it, cannabis, as a medicine, we are telling children that healthy people don't need it.

Now, I could end this article right here, but in case I have not driven the point home sufficiently, I will just add that it is my observation (and I invite you to verify my hypothesis) that children do not like to think of themselves as sick, nor do they like to take “stuff” to make them “better.”

So, if you want kids to view pot as sexy, adult, cool, gangsta, whatever, fine, but as for me, I would much prefer them to see it as plain old yukky medicine.                     

###

For further study: Report on teen usage in medical marijuana states.

First published on OpenSalon

 

Drug War Chronicle Film Review: "The War on Kids" (2009, Spectacle Films, 99 min., $19.95)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

For quite a while now, I've breathed a sigh of relief that my children are grown and not subjected to today's middle schools and high schools, with their achingly paranoid approaches to security and their obeisance to the principles of zero tolerance. As I've watched news account after news account of some kindergartener arrested for kissing a classmate, a middle school girl suspended for possessing Midol, an entire South Carolina high school raided for drugs as if it were an Afghan Taliban hangout, I've known that something was rotten in the way we treat our kids.

But I never gave it serious thought, never developed a comprehensive critique of our ever more freaked-out approach to youth, our desire to protect them from some drugs while doping them with others, or our increasingly authoritarian educational system. "The War on Kids" does. Winner of the best educational film at this year's New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, the 99-minute film smartly and entertainingly documents baseless and excessive punishment by schools and police, extreme forms of social repression, scapegoating by the media, exclusion from mainstream society and what can only be called pharmacological abuse.

All of this dehumanizing and psychological damaging abuses rise from our desire to protect -- or is it control? -- our kids. We want to protect them from violence and from drugs, from teenage sex and drinking. And this, of course, is where the war on drugs intersects with the war on kids, each reinforcing the other in an ever-increasing spiral of repressive, oppressive responses.

Unsurprisingly -- although this is underdeveloped in the film -- our story begins in the scary Reagan years of "just say no" and teen "superpredators." That was the time of the rise of zero tolerance, a policy that substitutes rigid, harshly punitive rules for common sense and an individual approach. Zero tolerance was originally about protecting students from weapons, but devolved into suspending them for drawing pictures of guns. And it was about protecting them from violence, but devolved into arresting them for schoolyard fights. And it was about protecting them from drugs -- some drugs anyway -- but devolved into strip searches of teen girls for Ibuprofen, suspending them for possession of Alka-Seltzer, and turning over anyone caught with a joint to the police.

As youth sociologist Mike Males, author of "Scapegoat Nation," put it in the film: "They must conform, they must have constant monitoring and supervision, schools won't tolerate a single drop of alcohol, no cigarettes, no drugs, no sex. This is absolutist conformity to arbitrary rules that are one size fits all."

Males goes on to note that despite the virtual panic over teen prescription drug use and overdoses, the real pain pill and OD epidemic is among the middle-aged. "It's not permissible to discuss drug use as a middle aged problem, so we have this unreal discussion about teens," he notes.

The youth, of course, are a convenient scapegoat. As much as they encapsulate our hopes and dreams, they also represent our fears and nightmares. Much better to project all that crap onto the kids than look into the mirror and deal with it ourselves.

The flip side of the war on drugs is the bizarre resort to the doping of a generation with Adderall, Ritalin, and the rest of the cavalcade of "good drugs." Here again, the filmmakers shine, turning a bright spotlight onto such insidious, invidious practices. The juxtaposition of the film's two drug chapters also shines a bright light on our whole insane approach to pharmaceutical substances. If a kid gets caught with cocaine, he is expelled and jailed. If a kid is on prescription Ritalin, all is good. Never mind that the two drugs produce almost identical biopharmaceutical effects.

"The War on Kids" is not just about the war on drugs. It also delves into the ever more Orwellian surveillance state built in the schools, the roles of administrators and teachers as akin to those of prison guards, and even the authoritarian architecture of the public school. (When driving through the countryside and coming across a grim, fenced, nearly windowless edifice, I find myself saying, "That's either a school or a prison.")

But the war on drugs and the war on kids feed on each other. Our draconian approaches to drug use and drug policy are a critical component of the war on kids. "The War on Kids" reveals that interaction, but also places it within the much broader context of our society's fear of urge to control our youth. In so doing, it unmasks the cant, the hypocrisy, and the fear-mongering that too often pass for reasoned analysis of the problems of youth.

As the Who once famously put it: "The kids are alright!" It's the grown-ups that have me worried.

Southeast Asia: Philippines President Names Herself Drug Czar, Orders Random Testing of All High School Students, More to Come

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo named herself the country's drug czar Monday and ordered government agencies to prepare for battle against big-time drug traffickers. But in the meantime, she has announced new marching orders on another front: student drug testing. As one of her first acts as drug czar, she ordered random student drug testing for every high school in the country, public or private.

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Philippine president and top drug war demagogue Gloria Arroyo
The immediate cause of Arroyo's seizure of the reins of drug control policy was the "Alabang Boys scandal," in which three Ecstasy traffickers managed to get initially acquitted despite the strong evidence against them, leading to suspicions of crooked prosecutors. Arroyo this week ordered five prosecutors suspended pending further investigation.

But problems in the Philippines' drug war policing go much further than the Alabang Boys. Filipino drug fighters have compiled a dismal record in prosecuting drug evidence, due apparently, to equal parts incompetence and corruption. Of the nearly 100,000 cases filed by the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in the last five years, nearly 78,000 are still unresolved.

Arroyo has pledged to change all that. "Governments that delay action against illegal drugs, or regard it as a routine police matter, do so at their own peril," Arroyo told a Monday cabinet meeting. "A country awash with illegal drugs is a country compromised, its law and order institutions tainted and corrupted. I will temporarily act as czar, or overseer, of the war against illegal drugs," Arroyo added, stressing that the campaign would include boosting law enforcement and prosecution.

On Tuesday, Arroyo showed she meant business by sending Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita out to tell reporters she had ordered law enforcement agencies to prepare an order of battle against traffickers. "Our law enforcement agencies involved in the campaign must come up with specific actions against those who are known big-time people involved in drug trafficking. It follows without saying, the President wants immediate identification of those who could be subject of this campaign and bring them before the bar of justice," Ermita said at the Palace news conference.

Anybody involved in drugs is fair game, he warned. "There will be no sacred cows on this. The drive will go all the way. Anyone who will be involved, whoever they may be, they will have to account before the law."

But it is high school students who will first feel the tender mercies of Arroyo's newly reinvigorated war on drugs. The Department of Education announced this week that while it had already planned to reinstitute random drug testing of students -- the Philippines did it between 2003 and 2005 -- it was now moving ahead at an accelerated pace to suit Arroyo's wishes.

And testing of students may be just the beginning. Some Philippines political figures are talking about drug testing employees of outsourced call center workers, others are calling for testing university students, and the government is currently considering drug testing all government employees.

Student Drug Testing: ACLU Sues Northern California High School Over New Expanded Policy

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Northern California chapter has joined with a small number of students and their parents in filing a lawsuit against the Shasta Union High School District, charging that its newly-expanded drug testing policy for students violates the state constitution. The move came after the district failed to act to address ACLU concerns over the new policy.

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drug testing lab
Under previous district drug testing policy, only students involved in athletics were subject to suspicionless random drug testing. But earlier this year, the school board expanded the program to include students who participate in choir, band, drama and other competitive co-curricular and extracurricular school programs at the district's three main high schools. It also required students and their parents to consent to the drug testing regime in order for students to be able to use school computers.

Such requirements violate the students' right to privacy, equal protection, and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the state constitution, the ACLU argued in its filing. The group and the plaintiffs seek an injunction blocking the drug testing program to avoid "irreparable harm" to the students.

But last week, the district was still talking tough. The district's new drug testing policy is "within the confines of the law," Superintendent Jim Cloney, who is named as a defendant in the law suit, told the Redding News. "We've discussed it," Cloney said. "The board chose to follow the policy as it's written."

The district doesn't have to waste its money defending an unconstitutional drug testing policy, said the Northern California ACLU's Michael Risher. "We are still... happy to speak with the district and try and resolve the issue," he said.

In the meantime, the Shasta school board can continue to throw away money as it tilts after windmills.

Feature: West Virginia School Board's Random Teacher Drug Testing Plan Headed for Court

After several months of discussion, the Kanawha County (Charleston), West Virginia, school board voted 4-1 in October to go ahead with a plan to randomly drug test teachers and other school district employees. The new policy expands an existing policy that provides for drug testing of teachers upon suspicion of drug use. The move came despite repeated warnings that it would result in a long and costly legal battle with teachers and civil libertarians.

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drug testing lab
The policy of randomly testing teachers and other employees without cause is at the spear tip of the expansion of drug testing. While random drug testing of students involved in athletics or extracurricular activities has been approved by the US Supreme Court, the random testing of teachers and other district employees breaks new ground. A similar battle is underway in Hawaii, where Gov. Linda Lingle is attempting to impose drug testing as part of a new teachers' contract, and a Louisiana state legislator is attempting to do the same thing there. But beyond those instances, data is scarce.

"It's hard to get firm data on this," said Lisa Soronen of the National School Board Association. "We don't have much more than anecdotal information, but my sense is that teacher drug testing is an issue that is more often considered than followed through on because cost, constitutional challenges, and political pressure not to do it make in undesirable for many school boards."

The association takes no position on teacher drug testing, said Soronen. "We have not taken specific positions on either student or teacher drug testing," she explained. "Our mantra is one of local control. Our view is not that school districts should do this, but that they should make the decisions themselves. If they want to do it, they should be able to."

Although both West Virginia courts and the US Supreme Court have held that government workers cannot be forced to participate in suspicionless random drug testing programs unless they are working in "safety sensitive" positions, the Kanawha school board is hoping to get around those rulings by defining virtually all school jobs as "safety sensitive."

"I guess there's nothing more safety sensitive than someone who has my child all day long," school board president and mother Becky Jordon told the Charleston Daily Mail late last month.

In local press articles, all four board members who voted for random drug testing cited community pressure, despite little evidence of drug use among district employees. That pressure was in part the result of three highly publicized but statistically insignificant incidents involving drugs and school employees in recent years. In one case, an elementary school teacher was arrested for cocaine possession, but was later acquitted and returned to work. In another case, there are allegations that a librarian had a relationship with two male students that included drug use. In a third case, an elementary school teacher was arrested after police found methamphetamine making materials in his home.

But some board members also suggested they hoped they could set legal precedent in expanding the scope of drug testing. "As a board member elected by the public, with the constituents I could not find any reason why I should not at least respond to the will of the people to pursue something I was not totally convinced had been eliminated as totally unconstitutional," board member Bill Raglin told the Daily Mail. "I'm not going to go against the ruling of the courts, but I want to hear what the courts have to say," he said. "And I'm not willing to accept what I am told by the ACLU lawyer or anyone else because it's an opinion they have -- it's not a court ruling."

Now, the warnings of legal challenges have come true. On November 26, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) West Virginia affiliate filed suit in Kanawha County District Court seeking to block the program from being implemented. Last week, the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined the fray, filing a second district court lawsuit seeking to block the program before it goes into effect on January 1.

"The Board left us no choice but to file the suit once they decided to implement a policy that risks student safety and violates the constitutional rights of its employees," said AFT-Kanawha chapter head Fred Albert. "The policy violates the constitutionally protected privacy rights of those school employees who will be randomly screened and who are not engaged in safety sensitive positions. The policy, in effect, places all teachers under suspicion; and this is both morally and legally wrong."

"The proposed random drug testing of public school employees is an affront to our fundamental rights and a senseless waste of scarce taxpayer dollars that will not increase student safety," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Public servants should not be required to surrender their constitutional rights as a condition of serving their community."

The AFT-Kanawha's Albert told the Chronicle Wednesday that while the issue of employee drug use probably drove the board to its decision, there was really very little of substance to it. "We had a case three years ago of an administrator who was caught with a substance, but he was cleared in a court of law and reinstated," Albert said. "There have been two other cases, but neither one was people showing up impaired by drugs. I think this was the primary factor in the board's decision."

Albert was quick to point out that while his organization is fighting the new policy, that doesn't mean it supports dope-snorting teachers. "My union does not and has never advocated for teachers or any other school employee using drugs or being impaired and putting children in harm's way," he said. "There is a policy in place, approved by the board about a year ago, that anyone who appeared to be impaired on the job should be tested on suspicion. We don't have any problem with that. But we don't feel that the rest of us who don't use illegal drugs should be considered guilty and have to prove our innocence."

Now it will be up to the courts to decide. And the Kanawha School Board is preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of scarce education dollars to find out. Albert and the teachers think that money, and the estimated $40,000 a year to implement the random drug testing program, could be better spent actually educating students.

Feature: The Kids Are Alright -- The SSDP 10th International Conference

Buoyed by this month's election results and jazzed by the prospects for change with a new administration in Washington, some 450 student activists converged on the University of Maryland campus in College Park last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the group's annual international conference.

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first evening gathering (photo courtesy DrugWarRant.com)
Hosted by University of Maryland SSDP, traditionally one of the national group's staunchest chapters, the conference saw students come from across the nation and at least two foreign countries for three days of education, training in effective activism, and hands-on lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the attendees were representatives of Canadian SSDP, buoyed by their own national conference, the organization's second, attended by 250 people earlier this month.

For both SSDP veterans and newcomers alike, the conference provided opportunities for networking, inspiration, and education. For some of the younger attendees, it was an eye-opener.

"I didn't realize how many people were involved in this," said SSDP national office intern Ericha Richards, a freshman at American University. "It's exciting!"

Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire has been attending for several years, but still found plenty to get excited about. "It's always good to come to national, to see what the other chapters have been up to, and to meet old friends," he said. "And we're always looking for new ideas to take back with us."

On Friday, led by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbyist Aaron Houston, the students spent the morning polishing up on lobbying basics, then visited with representatives or their staffers to push for reductions in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Students reported mixed results, but that's no surprise, and even with representatives on the wrong side of the issues, lobbying is part of changing minds -- and votes.

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Rep. Danny Davis (photo courtesy DrugWarRant.com)
On Saturday and Sunday, students gathered at the University of Maryland student union for two days of panels and training in activism. Saturday morning, they heard from movement leaders, who described the chances of drug reform at the federal level in coming years with varying degrees of optimism. With the Democratic sweep of the presidency and the Congress, the prospects have improved, but big obstacles remain, the students heard.

"This election was about change," said MPP's Houston. "It's a very exciting time, so why aren't we doing back flips?" he asked. Drug reform may get short shrift in an Obama administration faced with a free-falling economy and foreign crises, Houston answered himself. "We're walking into favorable conditions, but there are a lot of issues facing Obama and the Congress."

But the economic crisis could lead to opportunity, he said. "We have huge economic problems, and this could be the time to start talking about taxing and regulating marijuana. That could generate $10 to $14 billion a year for the federal treasury," he said.

"Change is going to happen," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. Wolf ticked off an ACLU reform wish list of rescheduling marijuana, ending the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes, ending the selective prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers, abolishing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, and banning racial profiling.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the prospects for change in Congress," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), citing support for ending the federal funding ban on syringe exchange and reducing or eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity among highly placed Democrats. "We are over the hump," the Capitol Hill veteran said. "People are not afraid any more to talk about drug policy, and we have key committee chairs on our side. We will repeal the syringe ban and reduce sentencing disparities," he predicted.

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police militarization panel, featuring Reason's Radley Balko, StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden, SWAT raid victim Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, moderated by Alison Grimmer of Roosevelt University SSDP
But Piper was also looking just a bit further down the road then next year's Congress. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) comes up for reauthorization in 2010, he noted. Rather than try futilely to eliminate the office, "we can try to shift ONDCP's goals" to a more public health-oriented approach, he suggested.

"Marijuana is more popular than the past three presidents," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a cheering audience as he recounted this year's victories for medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Student activists took no back seat to the professionals, though, and the breadth of reform efforts by SSDP chapters, and number of campuses leading or helping with them was impressive. Conference-goers got to hear about campus campaigns ranging from establishing safe ride programs (reducing intoxicated driving without exposing students to threat of penalty); good Samaritan overdose policies (neither the student needing medical help nor the student reporting it facing threat of arrest); getting schools to stop calling police into dorms for drug infractions; reforming dorm eviction policies for substance violations; working with ballot initiative campaigns such as those in Michigan and Berkeley; public education efforts; and state lobbying campaign; among others.

One chapter, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, seemed to have done almost everything, and all during its first year. At the annual Awards Banquet, where representatives received the Outstanding Chapter Award, a raft of impressive achievements were listed off in the introduction. Not only did Kalamazoo SSDP get a safe ride program established, and Good Samaritan and not calling police into dorms for minor drug violation policies established. They also went outside the campus to bring together a coalition of community groups, government agencies and law enforcement to get approval for a needle exchange program in the city for the first time.

One highlight of the conference was the Saturday lunch debate between SSDP executive director Kris Krane and Kevin Sabet of Students Taking Action Not Drugs. The back and forth between the two, moderated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, kept the audience rapt -- and scoring the debate like a boxing match.

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Krane/Sabet debate, Washington Post's Courtland Milloy moderating
Sabet, in what must have felt like hostile territory, did his best to try to establish "common ground" with drug reformers, citing his support for addressing the crack/powder disparity and qualifying some of drug czar John Walters' policies as "stupid politics." He also cited as models programs like North Carolina's Project HOPE, where probationers and parolees confronted by positive drug tests are not sent back to prison, but are hit with quick, short jail stays. "That's a huge motivation," Sabet argued.

If Sabet was looking for agreement from Krane or the audience, he didn't find much of it. "Our metrics in the war on drugs are wrong," said Krane. "We should be measuring abuse, problem use, infection rates -- not drug use rates," he argued. "You have to get arrested to get treatment, and that's backwards," he said.

Instead of being based on the Holy Grail of reducing drug use, drug policy should have different guiding principles, Krane argued. "First, no one should be punished for using drugs absent harm to others. Second, we should adopt a harm reduction framework, and third, we should adopt a human rights framework."

"Drug use doesn't occur in a vacuum," Sabet retorted. "A lot of drug use is problematic, and some of that can be addressed by dealing with poverty, health care, and homelessness. There is common ground," he tried again.

Not so quick, Krane replied, arguing that drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not the purview of law enforcement.

"Drug trafficking is not a public health problem, it's a law enforcement problem," Sabet countered.

"Drug trafficking is a prohibition problem, not a law enforcement problem," Krane retorted to cheers from the crowd.

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David Guard and Pete Guither prepare for ''Elevator Arguments'' panel
After the spirited back and forth between Sabet and Krane, attendees were treated to an address by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who zeroed in on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. "One of the most egregious aspects of our drug policy is the racial inequity," he said, reeling off the now familiar statistics about African-Americans sucked into the drug war incarceration machine and urging support for re-entry and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. "If we can reduce crime and recidivism, if we can help these prisoners, if we can train and educate them, we are helping all of America," Davis said.

Davis, too, pronounced himself optimistic. "There is a sense of hope that we can develop a sane policy in the way we treat drugs," he told the students, "but you have to stay engaged and involved. You have to believe change is not only possible, it's inevitable."

If Saturday was a day of panelists and speechifying, Sunday was for getting down to nuts and bolts as the young activists attended a plethora of sessions hosted by more experienced veterans. Students heard presentations on best practices for chapter organizing, fundraising, making quick reform arguments, networking, working the media, and working with youth communities, and looking beyond campus reform, among others. And the lunch session was a working one, with activists dividing up geographically and deciding on locations for regional conferences to be held in the spring.

From its beginning with a handful of students in the Northeast in 1998 outraged by the Higher Education Act's drug provision, SSDP has grown to an international organization with 140 campus chapters in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. With all they learned at this year's conference, the newest generation of drug reform activists is now headed back home to spread the message and the movement to the next generation.

Visit the Drug WarRant blog for Pete Guither's seven-part series of live-written reports from the conference.


UMD SSDP window, Stamp Student Center

Feature: Scholarship Fund Honoring 9/11 Hero John W. Perry Assists More Students Losing Financial Aid Because of Drug Convictions

A decade ago, Congress approved an amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) authored by arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). That amendment, variously known as the HEA drug provision or the Aid Elimination Penalty, denied loans, grants, even work study jobs to would-be students with drug convictions. Since its inception, more than 200,000 would-be students have been denied aid, and an unknown number have simply not applied, believing rightly or wrongly that they would not be eligible.

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In response to the amendment, StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet), in association with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group founded as a result of the drug provision, and other friends of civil liberties and believers in the value of higher education, founded the John W. Perry Fund to provide financial assistance to students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

The fund reflects the goals and views of its namesake, New York City Police Officer John William Perry, a Libertarian Party and ACLU activist who often spoke out against the war on drugs. In addition to wearing the NYPD uniform, Perry was also a lawyer, athlete, actor, linguist, and humanitarian. He was filing his retirement papers at One Police Plaza when the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He rushed at once to the scene, where he died attempting to help others.

The Perry Fund has its goal not only providing educational opportunities to those denied them by the provision, but also to raise the issue of the provision's unfair and counterproductive consequences, and ultimately, to repeal the Souder amendment entirely. Although some progress has been made it scaling back the drug provision, it is still on the books. Two years ago, in response to a rising clamor for repeal from the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Rep. Souder himself offered an amendment that would restrict the loss of aid eligibility to people who were already in school and receiving aid when arrested.

Efforts to win outright repeal as part of HEA reauthorization faltered this year when House Democrats failed to act when push came to shove. However, future applicants will have the opportunity to regain eligibility by passing two unannounced drug tests administered by a treatment program. Depending on how this is implemented, it could create a shorter and less expensive way for students to regain their financial aid.

"We regret that the Perry Fund remains necessary because Congress has not fully repealed its ill-conceived anti-financial aid law," said David Borden, executive director of DRCNet and founder of the Fund. "Along with helping a few deserving students each year, the fund also makes a statement -- we don't just think this is a bad law, we're actually handing out scholarships to individuals targeted by the government's drug war. We don't believe people should lose their financial aid because of drug convictions," he said.

With only partial reforms, there is still a sizable pool of potential HEA drug provision victims. This semester, the Perry Fund is helping two of them.

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Brandi McClamrock
Brandi McClamrock attends Forsyth Technical Community College for Healthcare Management in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After being arrested in a pot bust, she found herself ineligible for financial aid.

"I was in school, and my roommate was dealing pot, and I helped her and one of her customers out by giving him a couple of bags," said McClamrock. "My roommate was setting me up; she had been busted and the cops offered her a deal: If she could get them somebody bigger, they would drop the charges. The cops raided my house and arrested me and charged me with three felonies, even though it was all less than an ounce."

After two years of court dates and legal expenses, McClamrock pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession with the intent to distribute. She escaped without jail time, but had to serve two years of unsupervised probation. But the consequences of her marijuana conviction were just beginning to be felt.

"I started getting turned down for jobs because of my criminal record," she said. "I've been waiting tables because I couldn't get a job in my field, so I decided to go back to school in health care management at my local community college. I can't afford to pay for college -- I can barely pay my own bills -- but when I filled out the FAFSA, they denied me."

That was a huge disappointment, said McClamrock. "I had no idea they weren't going to let me have financial aid because of that. I'm 25 years old, my criminal record is holding me back, and now I can't even go back to school? Even when I'm trying to better myself and my prospects?"

Fortunately for McClamrock, an advisor suggested she look online for scholarships she could apply for, and she found the Perry Fund. While the amount she received from the Fund was only in the hundreds of dollars, it was critical. "It was absolutely the difference between me being in school and not being in school," she said. "This is a really good thing."

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Matt Daigle
Matt Daigle is in his second year at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida, where is taking pre-chiropractic courses. He was also in school when he got busted selling marijuana to an undercover agent. He is this year's second Perry Fund recipient.

"I was ineligible for assistance for two years," he said. "I took a full semester off to work, then paid for one class last semester, but now I can afford to go back. One of the counselors at the college went online and found the Perry Fund, and it was really a big help. I only have one more semester of ineligibility for financial aid, and this is keeping me in school until then," said a pleased Daigle.

"The Fund is really a big help for a lot of people," he said. "The way that law is, they want to punish you. They want you to be a better person, but then they make it more difficult to do that. The Perry Fund lets you know there are people backing you up, and I'm grateful for that."

"These students have been sent to jail or prison, they've paid fines, they've paid lawyers, they've spent countless hours resolving their legal situations," said Borden. "Why, after all of that punishment already handed down, should they continue to get treated differently?"

"It's not just that we oppose having drug prohibition, which I do, and John Perry also did very strongly," Borden continued. "But this is also a second punishment of people who have already been punished by the criminal justice system. Staying in school to finish your education is almost by definition a positive step. It's foolish to make that more difficult."

Outright repeal -- not more limited reform -- is necessary for another reason, too, said Borden. "As long as this law is on the books, large numbers of people will continue to mistakenly assume they are permanently ineligible for financial aid. Many people just assume the worst, and having this law on the books just winds up pushing people to the margins. We get emails almost every day from people who think they aren't eligible when they are."

Don't let Congress get away with it

 

Tell Congress to Stand Up for Students


Tell your representative and senators that you are tired of the same old "Drug War" politics.
http://www.ssdp.org/speakup/

 

Dear friends,

Congress failed us.

Despite a decade-long campaign by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, supporters like you, and a large and powerful coalition of more than 500 prominent organizations, Congress finally reauthorized the Higher Education Act (HEA) last week but chose to ignore our demands that they overturn the provision that strips financial aid from college students with drug convictions.

How come?

Outrageously, staffers on Capitol Hill are telling us that some members of Congress were terrified of facing negative attack ads calling them "pro-drug" if they voted for a bill reinstating aid to students with drug convictions.

Even as Congress was debating the HEA bill last week, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the author and chief proponent of the aid penalty claimed on the House floor that his precious provision "has been much aligned [sic] by ***pro-drug groups*** around the country."

So you can see that one of the major roadblocks to reform is the false conventional wisdom that voters will punish politicians who do the right thing by repealing harmful and ineffective drug laws. 

It's up to reformers like you and me to smash this false conventional wisdom by standing up and showing politicians that they will actually win votes for doing the right thing (and that, conversely, we may punish them at the polls for letting their unfounded fears stand in the way of progress).  After all, it is this anti-education penalty itself that causes more drug abuse, right?

So no matter how many times you have taken action on this issue in the past, please take just one minute to edit and send a pre-written letter to your representative and two senators demanding that Congress stop letting senseless political fears keep deserving and hardworking students out of school.

Click here right now to take action. http://www.ssdp.org/speakup/

And please make sure you forward us any responses you get from your legislators so we can track who is standing in the way of change.  Send those important responses to [email protected] when you get them.

Despite this setback, SSDP and our coalition allies are as determined as ever to see this senseless penalty repealed.  We are already planning our strategy for the next Congress and presidential administration, and remain optimistic that despite the barriers we have yet to overcome, we will ultimately restore financial aid to the more than 200,000 students impacted by this penalty.  In the meantime, members of Congress need to continue to hear an unwavering message from constituents that the public will not stand idly by as our elected officials continue to deny access to education in the name of the so-called "War on Drugs."

If we don't speak up and demand change when legislators need to hear it most, who will?  Please take action today. http://www.ssdp.org/speakup/

Thanks for all that you do,
Tom Angell
SSDP Government Relations Director

P.S. If you'd like to see SSDP continue to work on this and other issues, let us know by making a donation today. http://www.ssdp.org/donate

P.P.S. If you are a student wishing to get involved in fighting back against Drug War attacks on youth, contact us about starting an SSDP chapter: http://www.ssdp.org/chapters/start

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