January 9, 2004 - The Drug War Chronicle

Taking Drug Policy to the Presidential Candidates:SSDP Goes to New Hampshire

More than 150 student drug policy activists made the arduous trek to wintry New Hampshire this week as Students for Sensible Drug Policy (www.ssdp.org) combined its annual convention with some presidential politicking. With the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation, barely two weeks away, the fast-growing nationwide student group is taking full advantage of proximity to the candidates to press home its issues.

Foremost among them is the repeal of the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision. Enacted in 1998 at the behest of arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the provision bars students with drug convictions, no matter how minor, from receiving federal financial assistance to attend college for varying periods of time.

The SSDP national convention coincides with the national College Convention 2004 (www.nec.edu/cc2k4), an agglomeration of student activists of various stripes who have also seen the political wisdom of going where the candidates are. And the candidates are appearing at the convention. While the College Convention has drawn hundreds, SSDP is by far the largest single contingent, said SSDP legislative director Ross Wilson.

"SSDP has a huge presence here," said Wilson, who reported by phone from Manchester on Thursday's busy schedule of meeting and asking questions of the candidates. "The candidates probably talked more about drug policy than not because we were here," he said, adding that the drug policy reform bloc was also bolstered by the presence of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.leap.cc), whose Jack Cole had a featured speaking slot on the College Convention's own schedule, by Vote Hemp (www.votehemp.com), Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (www.granitestaters.com) and other organizations.

What follows below is Wilson's account of Thursday's candidate encounters:

  • Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich: "We asked him about the drug war, and he expressed his opposition to it and how it has been waged and said we had to reexamine the way we dealt with drugs. He also said he favored marijuana decriminalization. He also showed up at the last minute at a dinner we had; he popped in and talked to us for about 15 minutes. He thanked us for our support, and supported our HEA repeal efforts. He's our champion among the candidates."
  • Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun: "We asked her about HEA, which she didn't totally understand, but she did express her concern about filling the prisons with nonviolent offenders. But later, as she was walking out, I asked her again about HEA. This time, she said she thought it was a terrible law and she was against it. That is a firm affirmation that she is for repeal."
  • Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry: "SSDP board member Ian Mance asked him about HEA, and Kerry didn't seem totally familiar with the issue. He asked if it applied to both possession and distribution and when told yes, said he would favor repeal only for possession. He wanted to remain tough on drug dealers, he said. I caught up with him later and asked if he really wanted to punish people by withholding student loans after they had already been punished and when judges already had the option of doing so if they wanted. Was he against judicial discretion? He didn't really answer that except to say that in general judges should have discretion."
  • Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman: "He called on me, and I asked him about the drug provision and what he would do to work for repeal. He hemmed and hawed a little and asked me to repeat what the provision does, then he said he didn't think we should be punishing people who have paid their debt to society. He ended saying he would give a tentative yes to repeal, he would support it. He is perhaps the most conservative of the candidates, so that was a big surprise."

Question and answer sessions with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, retired general Wesley Clark, Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are set for Friday, Wilson said.

It wasn't all presidential candidates, he noted. "There was a group we had never heard of, Students Taking Action Against Drugs (STAND), and they had a panel. We sent some students to check it out and ask questions and point out flaws. We just slaughtered them," Wilson chortled. "They couldn't address our points, they couldn't defend their point of view. They were flustered, and later on, they came out and asked us for more information. We ended up giving them copies of 'Drug War Facts' (http://www.drugwarfacts.org)."

[STAND appears to a project of media educator Renee Hobbs (www.reneehobbs.org), who served as a consultant to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Clinton administration. According to Hobbs' web site, STAND "invites young people to use the power of mass media to design, create and deliver meaningful messages to help other teens resist drug use."]

"Their brochures were slick, but the STAND kids weren't," said Wilson.

And then there was Bill Bennett, the former drug czar and self-appointed moralizer for the nation, whose halo of virtue was tarnished recently by his admission under pressure that he has a big-time gambling jones. To greet Bennett, an early advocate of drug testing and "zero tolerance" for student drug use, SSDP demonstrators met him with urine sample cups and fliers detailing his career of atrocities. The great moralizer did not respond to the urine sample challenge.

And last but not least, said Wilson, SSDP media director Melissa Milam and Caton Volk from Chicago are working on a documentary to be shown on MTV's "Choose or Lose" get out the vote campaign. "They've been filming all the interactions with the candidates, the meeting with STAND, everything," said Wilson. Freelance journalist Dan Forbes, a notable on the drug policy beat, is also in attendance.

SSDP will remain in New Hampshire through Saturday, with the organization holding elections for a new board of directors Thursday evening, and other business to attend to. Stay tuned for a follow-up report next week on the rest of the convention.

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