Weed Watch

Drug Law Reform Progress

On Feb. 1, drug law reformers scored a minor victory when Congress accepted a slight revision of the 1998 Higher Education Act's so-called drug provision, changing the law so that only students currently receiving federal financial aid would lose that money if convicted on any drug charge. Since the law took effect some eight years ago, the U.S. Department of Education has interpreted the law to apply to any and all students – current and future – convicted of any drug-related crime, no matter how minor, at any point in their lives. According to the DOE, since strict enforcement began in 2000, the drug provision, authored by Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has kept more than 180,000 students from receiving financial aid – through loans or work-study programs, a circumstance that Students for Sensible Drug Policy has called an "education disaster." Souder spearheaded the revision, and claimed – ahem – that it was never his intention that the DOE deny prospective students aid based on a past drug conviction. Given that Congress also voted to cut $12.7 billion from the federal student loan program last week, however, whether this "reform" will actually benefit anyone remains unknown.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is looking for students who've been hurt by the HEA provision to join a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the draconian provision in its entirety. The law is morally wrong and likely unconstitutional, says the ACLU. "Blocking access to education is irrational," said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project. "Education is crucial to achieving employment, and that's the best way to keep people away from crime and out of prison." The ACLU is asking students who have been affected by the provision to contact the ACLU by e-mail, at hea@aclu.org, or by phone at 866/4HEA-FIX.

In other news, the Drug Policy Alliance Network has named U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, the 2005 congressional drug policy reform "champion" for her commitment to passing legislation that aims to reduce the harm associated with the war on drugs. The DPAN rated members based on their votes for or against six pieces of legislation voted on by the full House. Lee voted "right" on all six bills, as did Surfside Republican Rep. Ron Paul. Among the six pieces of legislation scored by the DPAN was an amendment to HR 2862 (co-sponsored by Paul) that would've barred the Department of Justice from spending any money to undermine state medi-pot laws (the measure was ultimately rejected, 161-264), and an amendment to HR 3058 that increased funding for the White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy's anti-marijuana advertising campaign (it passed 268-151). For his rejection of drug law bills, Paul earned a spot as one of six legislative "heroes." (Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett was one of 70 legislators that voted with the DPAN position on five of the six bills.)

Not surprisingly, the DPAN congressional "villain" award goes to Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has shown his commitment to expanding the unwinnable drug war. Sensenbrenner – who the DPAN says "works to pass bad legislation almost every year" – was the mastermind behind last year's über draconian Defending America's Most Vulnerable Act (HR 1528), which seeks to increase mandatory minimums for low-level drug crimes – a bill the DPAN considers one of the most "foolish" pieces of legislation ever introduced. (For a copy of the Drug Policy Reform Congressional Guide, go to www.drugpolicy.org/docUploads/VoterGuide2006DPA.pdf.)

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