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Feature: Scale-Back of College Aid Drug Penalty Becomes Accidental Casualty in Health Care Battle

Efforts to deepen already existing reforms to the Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision hit a brick wall during last minute negotiations last month over the health care reform bill, which included the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA). The Democratic Senate leadership removed the HEA reform and various other items they feared would not survive Republican procedural challenges the night before the Senate voted on the budgetary reconciliation bill related to the package.

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2002 press conference with 10 members of Congress calling for repeal of the drug provision
That doesn't mean HEA reform is dead this session, but advocates will have to push hard to get it passed. They say they plan to do just that.

The child of congressional drug warrior Rep. Marc Souder (R-IN), the HEA anti-drug provision, also known as the Aid Elimination Penalty, was enacted in 1999. In its first, hard-line version, it barred students with a drug conviction -- no matter how minor -- from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods. More than 200,000 students have been adversely affected by the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty since its inception.

The harsh and punitive measure sparked opposition from students and their supporters and was a key factor in the creation of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). It also sparked the creation of the Coalition for HEA Reform (CHEAR), an umbrella group including dozens of higher education, civil rights, and drug reform organizations, which worked Capitol Hill throughout the '00s to lobby for reform. Advocates scored a partial success in 2006, when Congress voted to make the penalty applicable only to drug convictions that occurred while students were enrolled in school and receiving aid.

The reforms included in the SAFRA this year would have gone further toward completely eliminating the Aid Elimination Penalty. Under the measure approved by the House, only students convicted of a drug distribution would have been subject to losing financial aid eligibility. But the section of the bill in which that reform was included got removed as part of a maneuver to include the rest of the legislation -- health care and student combined -- in the reconciliation process, avoiding the need to amass 60 votes.

"The Democrats took out a bunch of stuff at the last minute they didn't think could survive various Senate procedural hurdles," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a key player in CHEAR. "The HEA drug provision was one of many items eliminated -- for reasons that had nothing to do with the issue itself."

"The HEA reform was tucked into the budget reconciliation bill as part of SAFRA," noted Aaron Houston, government affairs director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), another key player in CHEAR. "But under Senate rules, only items that could be shown to produce budget savings were allowed, and our provision costs money, so that was a problem. It would have been subject to a valid point of order on the Senate floor."

But while the HEA aid elimination penalty didn't make the final cut in the reconciliation process, Houston saw positive signs in what did -- and did not -- take place in Congress this year.

"The Republicans could have called for a roll call vote on this provision, they could have tried to call for a roll call vote at the committee level, but they didn't do that," he noted. "As time goes by, I am confident that we are facing an increasingly receptive environment, not because the Republicans have seen the light, but because they are beginning to understand that it is not in their political interest to grandstand on these drug issues. They know it would alienate the Tea Party types, many of whom are fairly libertarian-leaning, and a lot of whom got their start in politics via activism in the Ron Paul campaign. While Republicans used to grandstand on this issue, now they don't see it as politically expedient, and that suggests how much progress we've made," Houston argued.

David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org and one of the principal CHEAR organizers since its founding, also saw positive signs. "The good news is that HEA reform almost passed last week," he said. "And this time we didn't even have to remind members of Congress about the issue; it's part of the agenda, they figured out how much they thought they could achieve politically, and they even deflected Rep. Souder's challenges in committee and on the House floor to do that much. And it was in there until the very last day."

Can that progress be transformed into an actual victory on HEA reform this year? There is still a chance, advocates said.

"The next step is to try to get this in by the end of the Congress," said Houston. "We're still hopeful, but I would be hesitant to say what the vehicle for it would be."

"Obama is talking about how he wants to do another education bill this year before the election," said Piper. "It's mainly about reforming No Child Left Behind, but will also contain some of his other priorities, like the reward program for the states, and they seem pretty serious about pushing that. We're hopeful that we can get HEA reform included in that, and we are contacting members of Congress about that. But at this point, it's far from clear the Democrats can get 60 votes to pass an education bill, with or without HEA reform."

HEA reform came frustratingly close to fruition in last month's health care brouhaha. And a side effect of that battle was to cost HEA reform what would otherwise have been a likely vehicle for passage. Now, all activists can do is grit their teeth and return to the fight. Such are the ways of Washington.

Feature: The State of Play -- Federal Drug Reform Legislation in the Congress

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US Capitol, Senate side
Ten months into the Obama administration, drug policy reform in the US Congress is moving along on a number of tracks. Here's an update on some of the more significant legislation moving (or not) on the Hill. With a few exceptions, this report does not deal with funding issues that are tied up in the tangled congressional appropriations process.

Next week Drug War Chronicle will publish a parallel report on the state of play for drug policy in the nation's statehouses.

The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

After years of inertia, efforts to undo the 100:1 sentencing disparity in federal crack and powder cocaine cases have picked up traction this year. In July, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and 83 cosponsors introduced the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, which would eliminate the disparity by treating all cocaine offenses as if they were powder cocaine offenses for sentencing purposes. That bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee and is now before the Energy and Commerce Committee. On the Senate side, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced companion legislation, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, last month. It is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Federal Needle Exchange Funding Ban

The longstanding ban on the use of federal AIDS grant funds to pay for needle exchange programs may soon be history. Although the Obama administration left the ban in its budget request, Obama pledged to eliminate it during his campaign, and his administration has signaled it wouldn't mind seeing it go. The House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies stripped out the ban language in a July 10 vote. A week later, the full Appropriations Committee approved the bill after voting down an amendment proposed by US Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) that would have reinstated the funding ban, but accepted a poison pill amendment that would ban federally-funded needle exchange from operating "within 1,000 feet of a public or private day care center, elementary school, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college, or university, or any public swimming pool, park, playground, video arcade, or youth center, or an event sponsored by any such entity." The House later passed the appropriations bill with the 1000-foot ban intact, but defeated a floor amendment by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) to reinstate the funding ban.

On the Senate side, the appropriations bill has yet to be passed, but the Senate committee working on the issue did not include language ending the funding ban. Reform advocates are hoping that the Senate will come on board for ending the ban in conference committee, and that committee members also strip out the 1000-foot provision.

The National Criminal Justice Commission

Introduced in March by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 would create a commission that would have 18 months to do a top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system and come back with concrete, wide-ranging reforms to address the nation's sky-high incarceration rate, respond to international and domestic gang violence, and restructure the county's approach to drug policy. The bill is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where this week it was set to hear a raft of hostile amendments from Republican members. It currently has 34 cosponsors, including Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Restoring College Aid to Students with Drug Convictions

The infamous Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, or "Aid Elimination Penalty," which bars students committing drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time, is under fresh assault. In September, the US House of Representatives approved H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), one of the provisions of which restricts the penalty to those convicted of drug sales, not mere drug possession. The bill will next go to a conference committee, whose job will be to produce a reconciled version of H.R. 3221 and a yet-to-be-passed Senate bill. The final version must then be reapproved by both the House and the Senate. If that final version contains the same or very similar language, it will mark the second significant reduction of the penalty, the decade-old handiwork of arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). In 2006, the provision was scaled back to include only drug convictions that occurred while students were enrolled in college and receiving financial aid (a change supported by Souder himself). Souder opposed this year's possible change.

Medical Marijuana

Late last month, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) reintroduced H.R. 3939, the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow defendants in federal medical marijuana prosecutions to use medical evidence in their defense -- a right they do not have under current federal law. The bill currently has 28 cosponsors and has been endorsed by more than three dozen advocacy, health, and civil liberties organizations. It is before the House Judiciary Committee.

That isn't the only medical marijuana bill pending. In June, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Medical Marijuana Protection Act, which would reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug and eliminate federal authority to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. The measure has 29 cosponsors and has been sitting in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce ever since. Frank introduced similar legislation in the last two Congresses, but the bills never got a committee vote or even a hearing. Advocates hoped that with a Democratically-controlled Congress and a president who has at least given lip service to medical marijuana, Congress this year would prove to be friendlier ground, but that hasn't proven to be the case so far.

In July, the House passed the District of Columbia appropriations bill and in so doing removed an 11-year-old amendment barring the District from implementing the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 1998. Known as the Barr amendment after then Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), the amendment has been attacked by both medical marijuana and DC home rule advocates for years as an unconscionable intrusion into District affairs. The Senate has yet to act. Among the proponents for removing the Barr amendment: Bob Barr.

Marijuana Decriminalization

In June, Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act, which would remove federal criminal penalties for the possession of less than 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) and for the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce. The bill would not change marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance, would not change federal laws banning the growing, sale, and import and export of marijuana, and would not undo state laws prohibiting marijuana. It currently has nine cosponsors and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

And just so you don't get the mistaken idea that the era of drug war zealotry on the Hill is completely in the past, there is Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL). In June, Kirk introduced the High Potency Marijuana Sentencing Enhancement Act, which would increase penalties for marijuana offenses if the THC level is above 15%. Taking a page from the British tabloids, Kirk complained that high-potency "Kush" was turning his suburban Chicago constituents into "zombies." Nearly six months later, Kirk's bill has exactly zero cosponsors and has been sent to die in the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

Industrial Hemp

Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) again introduced an industrial hemp bill this year. HR 1866, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009would remove restrictions on the cultivation of non-psychoactive industrial hemp. They were joined by a bipartisan group of nine cosponsors, a number which has since grown to 18. The bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce and House Judiciary committees upon introduction. Six weeks later, Judiciary referred it to its Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, where it has languished ever since.

Safe and Drug-Free Schools Funding

In May, the Obama administration compiled a budgetary hit list of 121 programs it recommended by cut or completely eliminated, including $295 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools community grants program. (It left intact funding for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools National Program). Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees agreed with the White House and zeroed out the program. The House education appropriations bill has already passed, but the Senate bill is still in process. Proponents of the program may still try to reinstate it in the Senate or during the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate appropriations bills.

Next week, look for a report on drug policy-related doings in the various state legislatures.

Higher Education: House Passes Student Loan Bill With Further Limitations on Drug Warrior "Aid Elimination Penalty"

The infamous Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, or "Aid Elimination Penalty," which bars students committing drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time, took a step toward further dilution this week when the US House of Representatives Thursday approved H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). In the passed bill is language that restricts the penalty to those convicted of drug sales, not mere drug possession.

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Mark Souder conceding the amendment
The bill will next go to a conference committee, whose job will be to produce a reconciled version of H.R. 3221 and a yet-to-be-passed Senate bill. The final version must then be reapproved by both the House and the Senate. If that final version contains the same or very similar language, it will mark the second significant reduction of the penalty, the decade-old handiwork of arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). In 2006, the provision was scaled back to include only drug convictions that occurred while students were enrolled in college and receiving financial aid (a change supported by Souder himself).

The House victory came only after Souder attempted and finally gave up a last ditch effort to undo the reform. The Indiana conservative first submitted an amendment to strip out the new language in the Education & Labor committee where the bill originated earlier this year, a vote which he lost. This week, he submitted the amendment as the bill came up for a vote on the House floor, but then withdrew it after Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) suggested compromise language that would limit the provision's effect to felony drug convictions instead of drug sales convictions.

That compromise language came too late to be included in the House floor vote Thursday. It would presumably be offered up during conference committee.

But that wasn't the only reason Souder withdrew his amendment. As he conceded in a House speech Thursday, "I was probably going to lose today."

More than 200,000 students have already lost financial aid under the Souder aid elimination penalty because of drug convictions. Passage of SAFRA, with either the sales conviction language or the felony conviction language, would reduce the pool of students who would potentially be victimized by it. It's not full repeal, but it's another step closer.

A Victory in the House of Representatives

Update: Souder concession speech -- "... I was probably going to lose today." It's an interesting glimpse into the prohibitionist mindset. Today the US House of Representatives passed a student loan bill that includes language limiting the infamous "Aid Elimination Penalty" -- a law stripping students of financial aid because of drug convictions -- to include only sales convictions, not possession. The law was previously limited to offenses committed while attending school and receiving federal financial aid. If the Senate follows suit, on this reform or something similar, it will be limited yet again. Yesterday we alerted our members that Rep. Mark Souder, the author of the law, was planning to offer an amendment on the House floor to strip out the language and keep his law the way it is now. Souder withdrew the amendment before it came to a vote. Check back at Drug War Chronicle for further info tonight or tomorrow. It's not a done deal until it passes the Senate, until it survives the conference committee, and then until the larger bill it is part of passes both chambers of Congress in its final form. But things are looking good. We including me personally have been working on this for 11 years, and this is a big day for us. Thank you to everyone who took action, this week or before, to help make this possible.
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ALERT: Crucial Vote on Souder's Law Happening Tomorrow -- YOUR PHONE CALLS NEEDED!

Update: We won. Dear friend: Our nemesis in Congress, arch-drug warrior Mark Souder, is at it again. Earlier this year, the House Education & Labor Committee passed a student aid bill including language to scale back his infamous financial aid/drug conviction law. The new version of the law would only count sales convictions -- a great step forward, though we still want full repeal. More than 200,000 students already have lost aid for college because of drug convictions. Tomorrow, we're told, Rep. Souder will offer an amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives, seeking to have this good language stripped from the final version of the bill. PLEASE CALL YOUR REPRESENTATIVE AND ASK THAT HE OR SHE VOTE NO ON SOUDER'S AMENDMENT TO THE STUDENT AID BILL. Students should not lose access to college because of drug possession convictions! The bill is called SAFRA, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, H.R. 3221. To reach your Representative (or find out who your Rep is), call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. When the receptionist in your representative's office answers the phone, politely say something like the following:
"My name is _____ and I'd like Rep. ___ to vote against Rep. Souder's amendment to the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would deny educational opportunities to students with minor drug possession convictions. Blocking access to education causes more drug problems and hurts the economy. Thank you."
When you're done, please forward this alert to all your friends, and please post it to sites like Facebook and Twitter too. A copy of this alert can be found at http://stopthedrugwar.org/alerts/college_aid. Also, please send us a note letting us know that you've taken action and if the staffer you spoke with told you anything that sounds important. Visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com for further information on this issue and the hundreds of organizations that support repeal. Thank you for taking action! Please consider making a donation to support these efforts. Sincerely, David Borden, Executive Director StoptheDrugWar.org Washington, DC http://stopthedrugwar.org P.S. Find StoptheDrugWar.org on Facebook here and here, and on Twitter here.

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.

Financial Aid: House Committee Lightens Up on Students with Drug Possession Convictions

For a decade, a law authored by Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder has been an obstacle to higher education for people with drug records. The Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, known more recently as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," barred students with drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time.

Under pressure from students, educators, and others in a growing coalition to repeal the provision, Souder himself supported a partial reform in 2006 that restricted the provision's reach to those convicted of drug offenses while in school, and further changes in 2008 to help motivated students regain their eligibility early. Still, pressure to repeal it completely remained.

Now, with Democrats firmly in control of the Congress, the provision is once again undergoing scrutiny. On Tuesday, the House Education and Labor Committee voted to further shrink the provision's impact by limiting it only to students who are convicted of selling drugs, not those convicted simply of drug possession.

The vote came as part of broader legislation reforming the student loan system. That legislation must still pass the House and the Senate before the reform takes place. The committee turned back an amendment by Souder to strip the language reforming the drug provision by a vote of 20-27.

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.” ###

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."

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