Mark Souder

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Feature: Higher Education Act Drug Conviction Penalty Repeal Stymied As Democrats Choke -- Again

A step toward victory turned to ashes for the broad coalition pushing for repeal of the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty") last week as, for the second time this year, key Democratic politicians refused to push it ahead. Now, the only chance to achieve repeal this session will come in conference committee, thanks to a possible tactical error by the bill's author.

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Bobby Scott offers his short-lived HEA amendment this month
Earlier this year, language that would have removed the drug question from the federal financial aid form, but without repealing the underlying law, made it as far as the Senate floor as part of language approved by the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee for the years-delayed HEA reauthorization bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), however, offered a successful amendment to strip the language, which HELP Chairman Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as floor manager allowed to go through without a fight. Last week, House Democrats led by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Committee on Education & Labor and a supporter of repeal, declined to hear an amendment to their HEA bill that would have enacted repeal.

The Aid Elimination Penalty bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods of time from their conviction dates. As originally written by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), it punished students for any infraction in their past. But last year, under pressure from a broad range of educational, religious, civil rights, and other groups organized into the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder amended his own law so that it now applies only to offenses committed while a student is in school and receiving aid.

Under the provision, more than 200,000 students have been denied financial aid. An unknown number have been deterred from even applying because they believed -- rightly or often wrongly -- that their drug convictions would bar them from receiving aid.

Instead of going for repeal, as key Democrats had promised, the committee heard and adopted two amendments to the provision by its author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), which are actually seen by advocates as likely to be positive steps. One would require schools to inform enrolling students in writing about the existence of the penalty. Another would loosen a clause in the law that currently allows students to regain their eligibility for financial aid by completing a drug treatment program, by allowing them to just pass two randomly-scheduled drug tests administered by a treatment program.

The dispute over the Aid Elimination Penalty wasn't limited to Capitol Hill committee hearings. In a move to the blunt the efforts of the penalty's foes, Souder sent out a Dear Colleague letter where he accused the 500 groups that belong to CHEAR of being "drug legalizers," an attack that did not go unnoticed.

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

Taking umbrage at Souder's characterization of their organizations, 16 groups responded with their own letter to Souder, asking him to retract his statement and requesting a meeting with him to explain directly why they oppose his law. "We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, National Women's Health Network, National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

Souder didn't respond to that letter, but he did lash out again, this time at the Capitol Hill newspaper The Politico, whose Ryan Grim had been writing about the conflict. In a letter published in the The Politico complaining about the coverage of him calling people drug legalizers, Souder resorted to the very same tactic. "Your readers ought to know that Grim was previously employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a drug legalization group," Souder wrote. "Grim is hardly an objective reporter." However, he did not contest any of the facts Grim reported. Grim's biography, including his past employment, is available at The Politico's web site.

Souder has clearly shown himself to be a dogged defender of his creation. If only the Democrats had shown the same fortitude in fighting to repeal it, advocates complained. "It's disheartening that a huge chorus of experts in substance abuse and education, as well as tens of thousands of students are calling for repeal, and Congress still hasn't listened," said Tom Angell, director of government relations for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the point groups in the campaign.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, was less diplomatic. "By not changing this counterproductive policy, Democrats are saying that tens of thousands of students should be kicked out of college and denied an education," he said. "The American people have moved beyond the drug war hysteria of the 1980s, but many Democrats still don't realize this," said Piper. "They're afraid reforming draconian drug laws will make them look soft on crime, even though polling shows that voters are tired of punitive policies and want change." Democrats had "chickened out," he said.

In the House committee last week, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) spoke eloquently about the injustice of the HEA drug provision, but then withdrew his amendment to kill it, noting that the Chair was not prepared to hear amendments that would have financial implications.

"Denying students aid for drug-related charges is simply bad policy," said Scott. "It increases long-term costs to society. It unfairly targets poor and minority students -- minority students because they are traditionally profiled for drug offenses, and poor students because those are the ones that need financial aid to attend school. It only does drug offenses. It doesn't do anything against armed robbery, rape or arson. And so it's somewhat bizarre in its application and it creates a double jeopardy for students who have already paid their debt to society."

Scott then asked that a list of the more than 500 organizations supporting repeal be entered into the congressional record, and then he withdrew his motion. "Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, as you've indicated, you're not considering amendments that would have to be scored financially and because of that, Mr. Chairman, I will withdraw this amendment at the end of the debate, because we do not have an offset."

Then, after Chairman Miller -- to advocates' consternation -- congratulated Souder for his persistence in scaling back the law, Souder introduced the pair of amendments mentioned above. "Without objection, both of these amendments will be accepted," Miller said, accepting them without having written copies before the members. "It's just a testimony to the extent to which we trust Mr. Souder's word here."

While activists are disheartened -- to put it mildly -- by the performance of the Democrats, they still see some faint hope for action later this session, and it could come because Souder, by introducing his amendments, will open the bill to discussion in conference committee. "Souder may have screwed up here," said SSDP's Angell. "Because the House version now has language modifying the penalty, that automatically makes it a topic for the conference committee."

While activists want outright repeal, they are pleased with this year's Souder amendments. "If Congressman Souder keeps working year after year to keep chipping away at his aid elimination penalty, he will end up doing our work for us," said Angell. "We encourage Souder in his continuing effort to scale back his own creation."

Mark Souder Can't Stop Accusing People of Being Drug Legalizers

Remember when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) went crazy and started accusing all his enemies of being communist spies? I don't because I wasn't alive yet, but I hear it was hilarious. McCarthy was eventually discredited and spent the remainder of his days in a drunken stupor.

Today his spirit lives on in the body of Congressman Mark Souder (R-Ind.), whose virulent compulsion to expose "drug legalizers" is equally troublesome and distracting. I discussed Souder last week, but the story of his festering paranoia just grows more compelling all the time.

As I reported last week, Souder recently attacked a large coalition of mainstream public health, education, legal, and policy organizations because they opposed his law denying financial aid to students with drug convictions. The incident provoked amusement and unfavorable coverage from the Washington press, due to the absurdity of accusing groups like the National Education Association and the United Methodist Church of trying to legalize drugs.

Today, The Politico published the following letter from Souder questioning the integrity of their coverage of the incident:
POLITICO = IDEOLOGICAL PRISM?

Out of fairness, it is incumbent on your newspaper to disclose when a potential conflict of interest occurs with one of your reporters.

IN the Nov. 13 article "Drugs and Money," Ryan Grim stated that the facts in a "Dear Colleague" letter I wrote were incorrect. Your readers ought to know that Grim was previously employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a drug legalization group. Grim is hardly an objective reporter.

Given his past employment, I fail to see why you would assign him a story on an issue that he had advocated for as recently as 2005.

You newspaper's mission statement includes the following: "There is a difference between voice and advocacy. That's one traditional journalism ideal we fully embrace. There is more need than ever for reporting that presents the news fairly, not through an ideological prism." It's time to ask yourself whether you're meeting that objective.

Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.)

Editor's note: Politico reporter Ryan Grim's previous work for the Marijuana Policy Project is disclosed in his professional biography at Politico.com.
In short, The Politico published an article about how Mark Souder loves accusing people of supporting drug legalization, so he sent them a letter accusing their staff of supporting drug legalization.

There is just nothing else he could have done to better illustrate the validity of their claim that calling people "drug legalizers" is something he loves to do. Even in a case like this, in which his letter would inevitably be perceived as hilariously ironic, Souder still could not stop himself from writing and sending it.

Even more revealing is the fact that Souder's letter makes no attempt to challenge the facts of the story. It seems that the prior affiliations of The Politico's Ryan Grim are the only noteworthy point Souder could think of in response to story covered in three major Capitol Hill newspapers. So if Souder doesn't dispute the facts of the story, and Ryan Grim's employment history was already detailed on The Politico's website, why did Souder bother writing this letter in the first place?

Easy. Because Mark Souder loves writing letters accusing people of supporting drug legalization.

Full of It: Rep. Mark Souder Souder Gets Called on His Characterization of HEA Reform Supporters

In an effort to build support for retaining his pet project, the Higher Education Act's drug provision, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) sent a Dear Colleague letter around Capitol Hill. In that letter he accused the more than 500 academic, professional, religious, civil rights, addiction and recovery, and other organizations supporting the call to repeal the provision of all being drug legalizers.

While there's nothing wrong with being a "legalizer," the vast majority of those organizations do not fall into that category. Now, Souder is being called on it.

The drug provision, also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," denies financial aid for specified periods to students with drug convictions. It originally applied to any drug conviction in the student's past, but with Souder's support -- perhaps in order to save it from a growing chorus of critics -- it was amended last year to apply only to offenses committed while a student enrolled in school.

With consideration of repealing the law pending in the House Education & Labor Committee, Souder sent a "Dear Colleague" letter reading:

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

But some of the groups Souder called drug legalizers wanted to get the facts straight themselves. In their own letter to Souder, 16 of those organizations asked him to retract his statement and requested a meeting to explain to him directly why they oppose his law.

"We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, the National Women's Health Network, the National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

While some signatories and key organizers of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform might be called "legalizers," as the above list makes clear, you don't have to be a legalizer to understand the counterproductive impact of Souder's law.

News will be posted on DRCNet shortly about the outcome of amendments offered in the Ed/Labor Committee late Wednesday night.

Top Drug War Advocate Publicly Humiliates Himself

On Nov. 1, Congressman Mark Souder (R-Ind.) sent a letter to his colleagues in Congress accusing hundreds of mainstream public health and education organizations of supporting "drug legalization." Now 16 of these organizations are calling on Souder to retract his statement and agree to a sit-down meeting so they can explain what they are actually trying to do. Is Mark Souder insane? Why would he attack mainstream public charities? I'll explain.

In 1998, Mark Souder authored the Aid Elimination Penalty of the Higher Education Act, a law that denies financial aid to students with drug convictions. Since then, a massive coalition of public health, education, legal, and policy organizations has formed to oppose the law. Their arguments include:
1. College education is proven to reduce drug use. Therefore, forcing students out of college obviously and undeniably increases drug use overall.
2. The penalty only affects good students. If you’re getting bad grades you can’t get aid anyway.
3. Students arrested for drugs get punished in court. It’s not like they’re getting away with anything.
4. Taking away opportunities from students sends a message that we don't want them to succeed in life. Students must be encouraged, not pushed down.
5. The penalty disproportionately affects minorities due to disparities in drug arrests and convictions.
6. The penalty only targets low-income students. These are the very people the HEA is supposed to help.
7. Judges already have the authority to revoke financial aid if they think that's a good idea.
Rather than attempting to understand these persuasive arguments, Mark Souder simply attacked and disparaged his critics, calling them a "small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups." He attempted to mislead his colleagues in Congress about the agenda of his opponents. And he did it because he's embarrassed that so many reputable organizations have condemned his terrible ideas.

It is no surprise that drug reform groups oppose the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty. StoptheDrugWar.org is one of them. But to attribute drug legalization sympathies to groups like the National Education Association and the United Methodist Church just makes Souder look like an idiot. His bizarre attacks have now earned him some unfavorable media attention at The Hill and The Politico. Beyond that, he's alienated all of the top organizations working on education and addiction issues; groups he'll have to work with so long as he continues to saunter around ignorantly fighting the drug problem.

It just tells you everything you need to know about Mark Souder to see him spit on organizations that work to educate America's youth and help people recovering from addiction. And it tells you everything you need to know about the drug war's political leaders that Mark Souder is highly regarded among them.
Location: 
United States

Barr shifts in support of medical marijuana

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
URL: 
http://www.ajc.com/news/content/news/stories/2007/03/30/0330natbarr.html

Millions More for a Failed Anti-Drug Propaganda Campaign? Ridiculous!

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
AlterNet (CA)
URL: 
http://www.alternet.org/drugreporter/49231/

Op-Ed: The federal anti-drug ad campaign yields only disappointing results

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
The News-Sentinel (IN)
URL: 
http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/newssentinel/16887843.htm

A Good Thing for Addicts and D.C.

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
Washington Post
URL: 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/06/AR2007020601680.html

Feature: The Conviction That Keeps On Hurting -- Drug Offenders and Federal Benefits

Some 15 to 20 million people have been arrested on drug charges and subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system in the past two decades. But, thanks to congressional drug warriors, the punishments drug offenders face often extend far beyond the prison walls or the parole officer's office. A number of federal laws ostensibly aimed at reducing drug use block people with drug convictions from gaining access to federal benefits and services. These laws have a disproportionate impact on society's most vulnerable or marginalized members -- the poor, people of color, and women with children -- and in some cases, do not even require that a person actually be convicted of a drug offense to be punished.

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No conviction is needed to be evicted from public housing for drugs -- even someone else's.
A growing number of groups and individuals ranging from the American Bar Association to welfare rights organizations, public health and addiction groups, drug reform organizations, and elected officials have called for changes in these laws or their outright repeal, saying they are cruel, inhumane, counterproductive, and amount to "double jeopardy" for drug offenders trying to become productive members of society.

"We feel that these laws are discriminatory and tend to focus on an illness as opposed to a crime," said Alexa Eggleston of the Legal Action Center, one of the key groups in the movement to adjust those laws. "We also think that if you have a conviction, you should be able to serve your time and come out and resume your life. We say we want people to get sober, get treatment, get a job, get housing, but then we set up all these barriers and roadblocks that seem designed to stop them from moving forward. These lifetime bans are very destructive of people's ability to reintegrate into society and move forward with their lives as productive citizens."

"These discriminatory laws represent incredible barriers in terms of people getting on with their lives, which is why they are part of our platform for change," said Pat Taylor, director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national alliance of individuals and organizations committed to securing the rights of people with addictions. "If you can't get housing, can't get a job, it's really hard to get your life back on track."

"One of the problems we constantly face is helping people who have been convicted of a drug crime," said Linda Walker of All of Us or None, a California-based initiative organizers prisoners, ex-prisoners, and felons to fight the discrimination they face because of their criminal convictions. "Why do they ask about that on the student loan applications? Why do they face lifetime bans on public housing? These are people did their time, paid their restitution, they've moved on and matured, and now, because of something they did in their twenties, they can't get into senior housing."

Walker knows a bit about the plight of the ex-con. She was convicted not a drug offense, but for a crime committed in an effort to get money to buy drugs. While Walker's status as a non-drug offender means she is not barred from receiving food stamps or public housing, she still wears the scarlet letter of the ex-con. "I currently work for a county office, and each time I go up for a position or promotion, this becomes a problem," she explained. "I've been out of the criminal justice system for 14 years now, but I'm still being told that because of my criminal history I can't be considered for this job or that."

These "double jeopardy" laws have been formulated in the last 20 years as part of the ratcheting-up of the war on drugs and include:

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, under which local housing agencies and others who supervise federally assisted housing have the discretion to deny housing when any household member uses alcohol in a way that interferes with the "health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment" of the premises by other tenants, illegally uses drugs, or is convicted of drug-related criminal activity. People who are evicted or denied housing under the law are cut off from federal housing assistance for three years.

According to a GAO report on the working of laws designed to deny benefits to drug offenders, some 500 individuals or families were evicted under the act in 13 large public housing agencies GAO surveyed in 2003 and about 1,500 were denied admission by 15 agencies in the same year. The agency reported that public housing agencies nationwide evicted about 9,000 people and denied admission to another 49,000 because of criminal convictions in 2003, with drug convictions consisting of some unknown but significant subset of those. While concrete numbers are hard to come by, it seems clear that tens of thousands of people are adversely affected by laws barring drug offenders from receiving public housing or Section 8 assistance.

Subsequent changes in federal laws and accompanying regulations have enshrined housing authorities' discretion and it was further solidified in a 2002 Supreme Court decision. In that case, the high court upheld an Oakland public housing authorities right to use its discretion to evict 64-year-old long-time tenant Pearlie Rucker, her mentally disabled teenage daughter, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild after the daughter was caught with cocaine three blocks from the building.

Only one class of drug offender is specifically prohibited from obtaining public housing -- persons who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines. They, along with society's other favorite demonized group, registered sex offenders, are the only groups of offenders singled out for prohibitions.

The 1990 Denial of Federal Benefits Program, which allows state and federal judges to deny drug offenders federal benefits such as grants, contracts, and licenses. According to the GAO, some 600 people a year are affected by this program in the federal courts.

Section 115 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (more familiarly known as the welfare reform act), under which persons convicted of a state or federal felony offense for selling or using drugs are subject to a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps. Convictions for other crimes, including murder, do not result in the loss of benefits. Section 115 affects an estimated 92,000 women and 135,000 children.

The welfare reform act contains a provision allowing states to opt out, although if they fail to act, the lifetime bans remain in effect. In 14 states where legislators have not acted, drug felons still face the federal ban, even though their sentences may be long-finished and their offenses decades old. But in 36 states, legislators have acted to limit the ban in some fashion, allowing drug offenders to get public assistance if they meet certain conditions, such as participating in drug or alcohol treatment, meeting a waiting period, if their conviction was for possession only, or other conditions.

Public Law 104-121, which blocks access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for people whose primary disability was alcohol or drug dependence. This 1996 law replaced a 1972 SSI "Drug Abuse and Alcoholism" program that allowed people in drug treatment, which was mandatory, to designate a payee to manage benefits to ensure they would not be used to purchase drugs or alcohol. The Social Security Administration estimates that more than 123,000 people lost benefits when this law went into effect, while another 86,000 managed to retain them by virtue of age or by being reclassified into a different primary care disability category.

The 1998 Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which states that people with drug convictions cannot receive federal financial aid for a period of time determined by the type and number of convictions. This law does not apply to others with convictions, including drunk-driving offenses, violent crimes, or other criminal offenses. Last year, the provision was reformed to limit its applicability to offenses committed while a student is enrolled in college and receiving federal aid. Since the law went into effect in 2000, some 200,000 have been denied student financial aid.

The Hope Scholarship Credit, which allows for income tax deductions for people paying college tuition and fees. The credit allows taxpayers to take up to a $1,000 credit for tuition and additional credits for related expenses. It specifically excludes the credit for students who were convicted of a drug offense during the tax year in question, or their parents paying the bills.

While GAO notes that "thousands of persons were denied postsecondary education benefits, federally assisted housing, or selected licenses and contracts as a result of federal laws that provide for denying benefits to drug offenders," it is low-balling the real figure, which, according to its own numbers, is in the hundreds of thousands. Additionally, the GAO report does not factor in the number of people who simply did not apply for housing, welfare benefits, or student loans because they knew or believed they were ineligible.

"The focus of all of those provisions is punishing people who've made a mistake as opposed to helping people find treatment," said Donovan Kuehn, a spokesman for NAADAC, the Association of Addiction Professionals, the nation's largest grouping of counselors, educators, and health care professionals dealing with addiction issues. "As addiction treatment professionals, we're very hopeful that with a change in leadership in the Congress, we could move toward helping people find personal solutions to their problems as opposed to criminalizing them."

Kraig Selken, a senior studying history at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, would like to see that happen. He knows first-hand the sting of the HEA drug provision. After being arrested with a small amount of marijuana, Selken paid his fine and sat through court-ordered drug treatment. He thought he had paid his debt to society. It was not until Selken began reading up on the HEA drug provision after his conviction that he realized his punishment wasn't over. Because of his misdemeanor marijuana conviction, he became ineligible for student financial assistance for two years.

"Ironically, today was fee payment day at school. I had to write my own check instead of paying for it with student loans," Selken told the Chronicle last week. "The lack of access to student loans hit me hard," he said. "Last semester, the only reason I could afford to go to school without loans was because my great-grandmother died and left me a little bit of money. Otherwise, I would not have been able to attend."

Selken said he plans to go on to law school, but even though he will be eligible for financial assistance again, he will still have to pay a price. "I'm still going to have to answer 'yes' on the federal financial aid form and I will have to go through the whole rigamorale of providing documentation to show that I am again eligible."

The HEA drug provision, authored by leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-I), may be the first barrier to drug offenders' reintegration to fall. The provision took effect in 2000, but in the face of rising opposition led by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder retreated, and the act was amended last year to count only offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving financial aid. But that move failed to quiet the calls for outright repeal, and with a Democratic majority in the Congress, advocates hope to finally get their way.

"We are very optimistic that this harmful and discriminatory penalty will finally be repealed by this Congress," said Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the most active groups in the CHEAR coalition.

"There is so much wrong with the HEA drug provision, I hardly know where to begin," said Drug Reform Coordination Network associate director David Guard, CHEAR's coordinator. "The drug provision disproportionately hurts the children of low- and middle-income families -- the very people the HEA is designed to assist -- and it disproportionately affects minorities, who, even though they use drugs at the same rate as whites, are much more likely to be arrested. Students who are forced out of college by losing their financial aid are less likely to come back to school," Guard said. "Let's hope Congress moves to repeal it this year," he said.

The HEA drug provision also hurts students seeking state financial aid. While states are under no obligation to blindly follow the federal financial aid guidelines when it comes to drug offenders, many do so, often merely because it is convenient. In at least one state, Maryland, legislative efforts are under way end the state's reflexive echo of the federal penalty.

There is also a chance of progress this year on the food stamp program, which, as part of the passage of the food bill, will be up for consideration early this year. According to the Food Research and Action Center, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will soon begin hearings on Title IV of the food bill, which includes food stamps, and the center is preparing the way for renewed discussions on relief for states which have not opted out of the ban.

While it was politically expedient to attempt to further punish some of society's most despised individuals -- drug users and offenders -- serious studies of the impact of these measures have led to calls for their reform or repeal. In 2003, the Join Together coalition, which supports community-based efforts to advance effective alcohol and drug policy, prevention, and treatment, put together a prestigious policy panel, headed by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to examine ways of ending discrimination against drug users.

In its final report, that panel made a number of recommendations. Those included:

  • People with drug convictions but no current drug use should face no obstacles getting student loans, other grants, scholarships, or access to government training programs.
  • Persons with nonviolent drug convictions but no current drug use should not be subject to bans on receiving cash assistance and food stamps.
  • Public housing agencies and providers of Section 8 and other federally assisted housing should use the discretion given to them in the public housing law to help people get treatment, rather than permanently barring them and their families from housing.
  • People who are disabled as a result of their alcohol or other drug disease should be eligible for Social Security Disability Income and Supplemental Security Income.

The American Bar Association has also weighed in against doubly penalizing drug offenders and drug users. In a 2004 resolution, the group adopted recommendations based on those of the Join Together policy panel. Like Join Together, the ABA called for alcoholism and drug addiction to be considered as a chronic treatable disease and public health matter. It also urged that "people seeking treatment or recovery from alcohol or other drug diseases should not be subject to legally imposed bans or other barriers based solely on their addiction. Such bans should be identified and removed."

While a movement to undo federal laws and programs that doubly penalize drug offenders or users is growing and has significant support among some Democratic members of Congress, with the exception of the HEA, little progress has been made in cutting them back, although that could change now that Democrats are in control of the Congress.

For a sense of how previous Republican-led congresses have felt about rethinking these punitive laws and programs, one need only look at the fate of the bill filed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and cosponsored by 10 other legislators, including sole Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That bill, which would have temporarily waived provisions denying federal benefits to drug users or offenders in areas affected by the storm, went nowhere.

Second National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV, and Hepatitis Underway in Salt Lake City

Around a thousand people, including some of the nation's foremost experts in treating, researching and developing responses to methamphetamine use, gathered at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City as Science and Response: The 2nd Annual Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis got underway Thursday. Sponsored by the Salt Lake City-based Harm Reduction Project, the conference aimed at developing evidence-based "best practices" for responding to meth and emphasized prevention and treatment instead of prison for
meth offenders.

This year's conference was uncontroversial -- a marked change from the first one, also held in Salt Lake City, which was attacked by congressional arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) because presenters openly discussed the impact of meth on the gay community. Souder was also incensed that the US Department of Health and Human Services provided limited financial support for the conference, and authored a successful amendment to the appropriations bill funding the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy calling for an investigation of the conference and HHS policy.

"The fact that there is absolutely no controversy this year indicates more than just a leadership change in Congress. It shows that our approach -- bringing together all the stakeholders and families affected by meth -- is the right one," said Harm Reduction Project executive director Luciano Colonna in a statement on the eve of the conference.

While Colonna sounded sanguine in the statement above, he was less so as he opened the conference Thursday morning. Visibly choking up at times as he sounded the theme of this year's conference, "500 Days Later," he noted that since the first conference in August 2005, "thousands have died or been incarcerated." And Colonna could not resist a reference to Souder and ideological allies in Congress. "There's no need to mention the names of cheap mudslingers because their party lost," he said to loud applause.

"I'm tired of seeing meth users incarcerated because of failed theories and practices followed by many treatment providers, faith-based groups and other organizations," Colonna said. "We look to the criminal justice system to solve our problems, and its participation has been a result of our failure. Just as with the homeless, veterans, and the mentally ill, we have failed as a system of care and as a country. We have the audacity to attack the criminal justice system as if the strands of this mess can be separated out, but we are all culpable."

If Colonna wasn't going to name names, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson had no such compunctions. As he welcomed attendees to his city, Anderson hit back. "I will say Souder's name," Anderson proclaimed. "We shouldn't ever forget the people who caused so much damage. They don't care that needle exchange programs help injection drug users avoid HIV; they have the attitude that if people use drugs, they deserve what they get. People like Mark Souder would rather make political hay out of tragedy rather than having the integrity to deal with issues based on facts and research."

Citing drug use surveys that put the number of people who used meth within the last year at 1.3 million and the number who used within the last month at 500,000, Anderson pointed out that, "If it were up to Souder, they would all be in prison."

Mayor Anderson, a strong drug reform proponent, had a better idea. "Those numbers are the purest case for harm reduction," he argued. "We know there are people who will use drugs and we can reduce the harm, not only for them and their families, but for all of us. The current approach is so wasteful and cost ineffective. And thanks to you, treatment programs are much more available, but in too many areas, you have to get busted to get affordable treatment. It is time to make treatment on demand available for everybody," he said to sustained cheering and applause.

Given the topic of the conference, it is not surprising that attendees are a different mix than what one would expect at a strictly drug reform conference. While drug reformers were present in respectable numbers -- the Drug Policy Alliance in particular had a large contingent -- they are outnumbered by harm reductionists, treatment providers and social service agency workers. Similarly, with the event's emphasis on "Science and Reason," the panels were heavy with research results and presentations bearing names like "Adapting Gay-Affirmative, Evidence-Based Interventions for Use in a Community-Based Drug Treatment Clinic," "Stimulant Injectors From Three Ukraine Cities," and "The Impact of Meth Use on Inpatient Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities for Youth in Canada."

The mix of interests and orientations led to some fireworks at the first conference, especially around the issue of stimulant maintenance therapy, or providing meth users with a substitute stimulant, such as dextroamphetamine, much as heroin users are prescribed methadone. Such issues may excite controversy again this year, but an opening day panel on the topic caused only a few raised eyebrows -- not any outbursts of indignation. The controversy is likely to come in Vancouver, where Mayor Sam Sullivan recently announced he wanted to implement an amphetamine maintenance pilot program with some 700 subjects.

With three full days of plenaries, panels, breakout session, and workshops, last weekend's conference not only provided information on best practices for educators, prevention workers, and treatment providers, but also helped broaden the rising chorus of voices calling for more enlightened methamphetamine policies. In addition, the conference pointed the Chronicle to a number of meth-related issues that bear further reporting, from the spread of repressive legislation in the states to the effort to expand drug maintenance therapies to stimulant drugs like meth and the resort of some states to criminalizing pregnant drug-using mothers. Look for reports on these topics in the Chronicle in coming weeks.

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