Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform Joins with Members of Congress at US Capitol to Call for Repeal of HEA Drug Provision 5/24/02

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Lawmakers, educators, and student, religious, and civil rights organizations gathered together outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Tuesday afternoon to urge repeal of a law that has denied financial aid to nearly 80,000 would-be students because they had drug convictions, no matter how minor.

Ten members of Congress joined with the Coalition for HEA Reform (CHEAR) as it submitted a letter to Congress calling for repeal of the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision ( The letter was endorsed by 41 national educational, civil rights, religious and other advocacy groups, including organizations such as the NAACP, American Federation of Teachers, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Education Association, American Civil Liberties Union, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church and numerous others.

The events in Washington, which picked up coverage from the Boston Globe, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Black Entertainment Network (BET), among other outlets, were the latest move in an effort by the coalition to preserve the momentum of its three-year campaign for full repeal of the law in the face of a partial reform offered by its author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). Souder, contending that the US Department of Education misinterpreted what the law said, has offered to amend the law so that its anti-drug provision would apply only to students enrolled and receiving financial aid at the time they committed their offense.

That isn't good enough for 67 members of the House of Representatives (65 Democrats and two Republicans), who have sponsored H.R. 786, a bill offered by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to repeal the provision. Ten of them showed up at CHEAR's press conference to voice their opposition to the drug provision, including Reps. Frank, Robert Andrews (D-NJ), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Julia Carson (D-IN), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Danny Davis (D-IL), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Patsy Mink (D-HI) and Bobby Rush (D-IL). Another member, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) had intended to speak but was kept away by a vote, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) sent a staff member to hand out a written statement.

"If you are fortunate enough to grow up in a family that can finance your college education without help from the government, a minor drug conviction won't bar you from an education," Frank told the Capitol Hill press conference. "But if you need some federal assistance in order to pursue higher education, you may have to delay or completely discontinue your college career, even if you have only been convicted of possession of small amounts of marijuana."

Under the Souder law, students convicted of drug possession lose their student financial aid eligibility for one year for the first offense, two years for the second offense and indefinitely for a third offense. Drug sellers lose eligibility for two years and indefinitely for a second offense.

"It is not enough to amend the law so that convictions from years prior to college attendance would no longer count," said Frank. "I strongly believe we need to pass a complete repeal."

Frank got a strong second from New Jersey Democrat Rep. Robert Andrews, who called the law "unwise and unjust" and an "economic death sentence." The anti-drug provision "abandons two of the most important principles I thought we had in American society -- redemption and local control. I'm glad that kind of standard doesn't apply to Congress," Andrews added. "Our offices would be empty."

Illinois Democrat Rep. Danny Davis also decried the law's unforgiving nature, saying "We need to give people a second chance, give them a first chance, give them the chance to go to school so they're not out on the corners dealing crack or blow."

Both at the press conference and in the letter to Congress, the coalition hammered away at the law's racially discriminatory impact, its class bias and its perversion of the student financial aid system. "Financial aid is the wrong vehicle for addressing social goals such as reducing substance abuse," read the letter to Congress. "While the drug provision was designed to prevent drug dealers from setting up shop on campus with federal funds, it primarily impacts students convicted of minor offenses. The vast majority of young people convicted of drug offenses are convicted of simple, nonviolent possession."

The NAACP's Washington, DC bureau chief, Hilary Shelton elaborated on the racial disparities at work in the drug war and hence in the anti-drug provision. "African Americans are disproportionately more likely to use financial aid, Pell Grants and the like," he said, "and they are also disproportionately more likely to be convicted of drug related offenses, even though they use drugs at a rate much more consistent with our representation in society."

NASFAA's Director of Congressional Relations Larry Zaglaniczny rebutted an argument commonly used by the drug provision's supporters, that taking financial aid away from drug offenders makes more available for law-abiding students, explaining that the system doesn't work that way. "Not one penny" of the aid denied goes to other applicants, he said.

Also speaking at the press conference was 22-year-old Caton Volk, who described how a high school marijuana arrest stopped him from getting financial aid after his mother's loss of a job made it impossible for her to support his quest for higher education. Volk was forced to drop out of the University of Illinois at Chicago after one semester. Despite having paid a fine, completed a two-year probation sentence, performed community service and passed several drug tests, the anti-drug provision continues to punish Volker.

Others addressing the crowd included Jo'ie Taylor of the United States Student Association, Shawn Heller of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Jennifer Collier of the Legal Action Center, an organization advocating for the rights of people afflicted with addiction problems. Additional supporting statements were provided by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Coalition and media outreach by the Mintwood Media Collective helped make the event the success that it was.

While the campaign to repeal the HEA anti-drug provision has spawned student activism and generated new alliances among institutions and advocacy organizations, Souder and his law remain in place and implacable. Responding to the press conference, Souder told the Boston Globe the Republican-led House Education and the Workforce Committee is working on fine-tuning the law, with possible changes including limiting the law to those enrolled and receiving financial aid at the time of their offense.

But DRCNet's David Borden, CHEAR's chief engineer, is confident of eventual victory. "Numerous allies in Congress, education, civil rights and elsewhere have spoken loud and clear that the Souder compromise does not satisfy the issues and that the law must be repealed in full." Borden added, "We are optimistic of having eight times as many organizations and twice as many Congressional cosponsors involved in this by next year when the Higher Education Act reauthorization process begins, not to mention all the organizing we're doing in the districts whose Representatives sit on that committee. The drug provision is unpopular, and sooner or later Souder & company are going to drop it for their own good."

Watch the BET Nightly News report (lead story, Tuesday night) at

Visit for pictures from the CHEAR press conference.

Read the Boston Globe piece online at or

Read the Chronicle of Higher Education coverage of the press conference online at or

A statement issued by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism made the Religion News Service's "Quote of the Day." RNS quoted: "Denying an education to past drug offenders who seek to become productive members of society is both cruel and illogical."

Visit for information on the HEA campaign or to get involved.

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Issue #238, 5/24/02 Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform Joins with Members of Congress at US Capitol to Call for Repeal of HEA Drug Provision | British MPs Call for Massive Drug Policy Reform, But Reject Legalization -- for Now | Incoming Dutch Government Threatens Coffee Shops | Budget Crunch: Drug War Fuels Mississippi Prison Binge, No Money Left for Education | High School Drug Courts Spreading in West Virginia | Newsbrief: Marijuana Exile Steve Kubby Claims Refugee Status in Canada | Newsbrief: British Cannabis Cafe Owner Freed | Newsbrief: North Carolina Drug Courts Face Ax Because of Budget Woes | Newsbrief: New York City Cops in Paraphernalia Sweep, Big Hoopla, Misdemeanor Arrests | Newsbrief: Seattle Marijuana Initiative Signature-Gathering Now Underway | Newsbrief: Santa Cruz to Place Needle Disposal Boxes in Public Restrooms | Errata: Different Kinds of Mushrooms | The Reformer's Calendar

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