Student Drug Reform Movement Gathers Steam

Say "student activism" and most people conjure up images of the anti-globalization protests in Seattle and Washington, DC, or campaigns to aid sweatshop workers, or the hordes of students who volunteered in the fall election campaigns.

But in the last two years, a long dormant student reform movement aimed at changing US drug policy has begun to reemerge. While NORML chapters have existed on some campuses since the 1970s and independent single-campus groups and movements have flickered in and out of existence, student activism around drug policy issues has been limited and sporadic.

Congressman Mark Souder (R-IN), a drug war zealot, deserves some credit for changing that. As a member of the House Education committee, he introduced an amendment to the 1998 revision of the Higher Education Act (HEA) that bars some students with drug convictions from obtaining federal financial aid. Once Souder and his colleagues passed that bill, it was only a matter of time until student outrage began to percolate from campus to campus.

One place students got mad was the Rochester Institute of Technology, but they didn't just get mad, they got organized. Working with the DRCNet's HEA Campaign, RIT activists were the first in the country to successfully lobby their student government to pass a resolution calling for repeal of the HEA drug provision.

RIT's activists then went on to form the first chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy ( Now boasting more than 60 active chapters on campuses across the country, SSDP is taking on the full panoply of drug policy issues and has become the nation's largest student-based drug reform organization.

"And we have about 40 more chapters in the process of formation," newly-appointed SSDP National Director Shawn Heller told DRCNet. "It's been a really incredible two years."

Although dismay with the HEA loan provision was the initial motivation for many students, said Heller, the group's aim is higher.

"Our goals are primarily to educate and raise awareness of the harm caused by the war on drugs," Heller, who is about to graduate from George Washington University, explained. "We have a broad educational campaign; we've been bringing speakers onto campuses, holding teach-ins and seminars, writing op-eds in student newspapers," he said.

"Students contact us and we mail them an organizing manual," explained Heller. "It tells them everything they need to know about how to get official student organization status, how to join our list-serves, things like that.

"We're a bottom up organization," said Heller. "The national office facilitates the actions of the chapters and tries to increase the number of chapters."

"But," Heller chuckled, "there's nothing like a big media hit to increase interest. After Rolling Stone did a story on us, our number of new chapters and chapters in formation nearly doubled."

Some schools form chapters for more immediate reasons. In October, a large Ecstasy bust at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville left three current and six former UVA students under indictment on state and federal charges, along with seven non-students. In a press conference announcing the arrests, University Police Chief Michael Sheffield said the operation was "designed to identify and investigate sources of illegal drug distribution within the University of Virginia student population."

Sheffield also told reporters that both police and students were involved in undercover operations on campus, and that student involvement in the investigation was "critical," because student informants were able to verify information obtained by the police.

In the wake of that bust, UVA students contacted the ecstasy testing and harm reduction group Dancesafe (, which in turn put the students in contact with SSDP. Already politically aware, the students were catalyzed by the bust, and another SSDP chapter is now in formation.

SSDP has held two national conferences, including a 1999 meeting on Drug Policy and Justice that, said Heller, was the "largest student drug policy conference ever." Earlier this year, SSDP brought chapter heads from across the country together in Washington for the group's first national congress.

"And we work with other groups, as well," Heller pointed out. "For example, we're working closely with the Prison Moratorium Project," which ties in nicely with SSDP's "Education Not Incarceration" campaign.

Last week, Prison Moratorium Project activists at Ithaca College in upstate New York, which also boasts an SSDP chapter, held sit- ins and mass demonstrations demanding the college sever its ties with food service provider Sodexho Marriott, the major investor in Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison operator.

The Ithaca actions were not the first against Sodexho Marriot, only the most dramatic, and they serve to demonstrate the way students working on disparate campaigns find themselves linked in an interlocking web of activist issues. Sodexho Marriott has drawn protests not only from prison activist groups, but from pro-union students at SUNY Albany and students opposed to its environmental practices at campuses across the country.

"So, organizing around HEA is one of our national agenda items," explained Heller, "but it's not the only one."

It is, however, a very potent one. Coordinated by DRCNet, a broad array of educational, drug reform, religious, women's, and minority rights groups banded together to create the Coalition for HEA Reform ( The Coalition's goal has been to pass H.R. 1053, a bill sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) that would repeal the HEA drug provision, or equivalent legislation in this or the next Congress.

Yet the primary factor enabling the Coalition to impact on the media and politics of this issue has been student activism: One of the coalition's primary tactics has been to urge student governments to pass resolutions, like RIT's, calling for the provision's repeal. That tactic has paid off: Since the campaign's inception, more than 30 colleges and universities have passed the resolutions, as well as a number of statewide and multi-school student associations. (See the link above for a list of schools that have passed the resolution.)

Some colleges have done more. Yale University's student association not only passed the HEA campaign's resolution, but actually called on the school to make up the difference in federal aid lost by students under the provision out of university funds. Hampshire College students went even further, holding a student body referendum to actually allocate $10,000 of student activities funds for a financial aid fund for drug offenders; the referendum passed overwhelmingly.

Hampshire has also demonstrated how students speaking out can cause an issue to bubble up to other levels. Last summer, Hampshire's President, Gregory S. Prince, became the first college president to endorse the Coalition's educators' sign-on letter.

At the University of Wisconsin, senior Dan Goldman has been involved in the same fight. "We passed the HEA resolution last year," he told DRCNet. "We're working right now to get other schools in the University of Wisconsin system to pass the resolution, so we can present our congressman with a united front."

"Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) voted against repealing the drug provision," Goldman said, "and we're looking to meet with him early on to show him the error of his ways."

For Goldman, SSDP filled a gap. "Ever since I went through the DARE program as an 11-year-old, I knew something wasn't right, but it's hard for a kid to articulate that. There are lots of people out there who know the War on Drugs is wrong, and what SSDP does is provide an organization for students who want to be active on the issue but never found a home."

Goldman is yet another example of the interlocking nature of student protest movements. "Here in Madison, we're working to bring attention to the Supreme Court crack baby case," he said, "and we're working with the women's center on that."

"And I plan to work on Colombia with Chicano or Latino groups," said the senior. "Drug policy can be related to lots of issues. We're trying to build coalitions -- ad hoc or continuing -- with as many groups as possible."

SSDP's Heller is proud of the HEA coalition's progress and predicts that repeal "will come easily."

But maybe not this year. "We are making progress on all fronts - - media, legislative, public education -- but I don't know if we have the votes yet," he mused.

"Getting a vote this year is not the most important thing; winning that vote is," he added. "Going ahead prematurely and losing would be a setback."

Heller also saw great potential for overcoming student movements' perennial inability to forge strong relationships with students of color.

"The majority of SSDP groups reflect diverse student bodies," he told DRCNet, "and most chapters are in coalitions with minority groups on their campuses."

"For example," Heller continued, at Mt. Holyoke they are having a "War on Drugs Month," which SSDP and the Black Peoples' Union are cosponsoring. "They're not just signing on; the Union will run mandatory minimum week," he said.

HEA reform is also helping to forge alliances with predominantly minority campuses, including prestigious Howard University in Washington, DC.

"We think this HEA provision discriminates against low income students, many of whom are African-American and Hispanic students," Howard University Student Association President Sellano Simmons told the Week Online. "We're looking past the War on Drugs rhetoric and seeing who will truly be affected."

"Student government members have discussed this," said Simmons. "We will vote on it on January 17th, and it will pass. Definitely."

Sellano told the Week Online that the Howard student government was working together on the issue with its counterparts from other Washington schools in the DC Metropolitan University Alliance. Those schools include Howard, American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Marymount University and others.

Sellano's initiation into the politics of student loans came courtesy of DRCNet Campus Coordinator Chris Evans.

"A lot of students didn't know about that provision," said Sellano, "but Chris definitely let us know."

That's his job.

Evans, along with fellow Campus Coordinator Steve Silverman, work full time at DRCNet on the effort to see the HEA drug provision overturned.

Following a wall chart that lists the colleges in each targeted congressional district, Evans works the phones. District by district, school by school, he attempts to contact student government leaders, student newspaper writers, and campus organizations to urge them to pass the resolution.

Evans has had some success -- five schools in his set of districts have passed the resolution this semester, with more coming soon.

"Most of the student leaders are receptive, and quite a few are shocked," said Evans. "But not everyone is with us. Sometimes you get one of those politicians-in-training, the guy who wants to be so balanced on an issue that he won't take a stand one way or the other."

And then there are the would-be gatekeepers.

"Sometimes I get a faculty advisor or administrator, usually at a small religious college, and she will want to 'protect' her students from the issue," said Evans.

For example, Dean of Students Karen Young, of the Methodist- affiliated Wesley College in Delaware, refused to allow Evans access to contact information for Wesley student organizations. Young was unresponsive both to the ideal that students should be able to consider issues for themselves and to the fact that a branch of their own church, the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, is a member of the Coalition for HEA Reform!

Nevertheless, the intertwined HEA/SSDP efforts continue to score successes around the country. Eleven student governments have endorsed the resolution this semester alone, ranging from small schools like Goshen College in Indiana and Dalton College in Georgia, to major universities such as the University of Delaware and University of North Carolina at Wilmington, with more seemingly on the way.

From Austin to Boston, on grassy campuses and in Washington office buildings, on the barricades and in the halls of student government, a new student movement gathers its forces.

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