This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced legislation to repeal a provision in the Higher Education Act that has denied grants, loans and work-study opportunities to an estimated 200,000 students with drug convictions over the last 18 years.
If it passes, the Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success (SUCCESS) Act will be a victory nearly twenty years in the making. But more than that, the long campaign for HEA reform has been a catalyst that galvanized a generation of drug policy reformers and united a broad coalition of national organizations that, in many cases, had never before spoken out on the drug war.
It began in 1998. I was then the associate director of DRCNet [http://www.stopthedrugwar.org], working out of a small office in Washington, DC to end a drug war that at the time enjoyed nearly universal support among both Democrats and Republicans. That fall, President Clinton signed a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that included a provision to deny federal financial aid to any student with a drug conviction, no matter how minor, and no matter when it happened.
A year earlier, DRCNet had launched a dedicated email discussion list for college students. At the time, the prevailing wisdom among movement insiders was that college students were impossible to organize, and in any case, they only cared about cannabis and it wasn’t worth the effort to engage them around racial disparities, needle exchange or other drug war issues. But DRCNet had always been about connecting the dots on drug policy reform.
It was on that discussion list that we met and began to support a small group of students from the Rochester Institute of Technology who called themselves the Rochester Cannabis Coalition. They were in a fight with their school administration over official recognition (and the $500 in student fee funding that came with it). Over the course of that year, as RIT ham-handedly turned a dozen geeky stoners into a campus cause celeb, we worked with them to broaden their scope and their base of support. Before the 1997-1998 school year was out, the Rochester Cannabis Coalition had changed its name to Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Things moved quickly after that. In the fall of 1998, our little office in DC was filled with future star power, including interns Troy Dayton, who was also running a NORML chapter at American University, now the CEO of The ArcView Group, and Taylor West, now the Deputy Director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, as well as Kris Lotlikar, who in addition to being the founder and President of a leading alternative energy company, is the original publisher of the State of Legal Cannabis Markets Report. Kris was one of the original Rochester student leaders, and had come to work for us as a national student coordinator after RIT kicked him out (something about fomenting a “riot” outside a trustees’ meeting the previous spring).
President Clinton signed the Higher Education Act on October 7th, and in early November, I sent the students on our list a draft resolution calling for HEA reform. Over the next several months, dozens of student activists successfully lobbied their student governments to adopt it, and SSDP chapters began to spring up across the country.
Meanwhile, the absurdly punitive overreach of setting up a double-punishment of young people for drug convictions – the vast majority of which were for simple possession of marijuana – turned out to be a very strong organizing tool. We built a national coalition that included the NAACP, and the NAACP Youth and College Division, which would later co-sponsor SSDP’s first national conference. To anyone’s recollection, HEA reform was the first drug policy reform initiative to which the nation’s oldest and most successful civil rights organization had ever lent its name.
The Higher Education Act Reform Campaign continued to be a key organizing tool for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and in 2006, reformers scored a partial victory when the provision was amended to apply only to students whose convictions occurred while they were receiving aid. It was an important step, but it was only a step, and so the work has continued.
Today, SSDP is active in all fifty states and nine countries, and the organization has been recognized with NGO status at the United Nations. Ireland, in fact, just held its third annual national SSDP conference. Here at home, SSDP alumni hold leadership positions across the movement and throughout the cannabis industry, and the organization is an important bridge between the two. Nearly two decades in, the organization that grew to a large extent out of the HEA reform campaign is a driving force for progress, an invaluable center of leadership development, and a vital source of connection that lends strength to our cause.
This week, a bi-partisan group of United States Senators introduced a bill that would overturn the financial aid provision of the Higher Education Act once and for all. It is a big deal. Not only for the thousands of students and prospective students who will, with its passage, have access to higher education, but for a generation of leaders who came of age fighting for its repeal.