Bellingham (WA) Herald 25: May/2000

Students seek reform of U.S. Drug War

SOCIAL ISSUES: Group Says Denying Financial Aid Does Not Solve Problem.

TYREE CALLAHAN - mad and frustrated about his father's imprisonment on drug charges - is channeling those emotions into political action against what he calls the country's out-of-control drug war.

"It's amazing the damage to society that the war on drugs is causing," said Callahan, a 27-year-old Whatcom Community College student whose father has been in federal prison the past decade serving a 27-year sentence for conspiring to sell drugs.

To push for drug reform, Callahan and Western Washington University student, Kevin Feeney, started a group this spring, the WWU Drug Policy Reform Organization.

"I've wanted to start a student group for a long time to show what impact students can have on drug reform with their legislators," Callahan said.

One of the group's first accomplishments was to have a resolution passed earlier this month by the Associated Students at Western.

The resolution urges the repeal of a provision in the federal Higher Education Act of 1998 that delays or denies federal financial aid eligibility to people convicted of state or federal drug offenses.

The provision doesn't apply to alcohol or tobacco, doesn't include convictions that have been removed from records, and doesn't apply to convictions that occurred before the age of 18, unless the person was tried in adult court.

Under the provision, students convicted of drug possession will lose aid for one year at the first offense, two years for the second, and indefinitely for the third offense.

Students convicted of selling illegal drugs face a two-year suspension for the first offense and indefinite suspension for a subsequent offense. The provision takes effect July 1.

Callahan and Feeney say the provision imposes a blanket prohibition on financial aid to offenders, eliminating judicial discretion for individual cases.

"Since I've been studying race, class and gender issues, I see the deeper effects of the way drug laws are implemented," said Feeney, a junior majoring in law and diversity. "They are racist, and target lower classes and minorities. The people who are most affected by this provision are from lower economic classes, and they're the ones that need the financial aid."

Feeney said the provision sends a confused message about the drug war.
"The perception is they're trying to help people from negative consequences of drug use," he said. "But denying an education is not furthering a person's ability to become a productive member of society."

The student club, along with the national chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy on Campus, drafted the resolution. More than 150 campuses are involved in the campaign, and 21 student bodies have endorsed similar resolutions.

The club put the resolution before the student council at Whatcom Community College this week for a vote, and plans to present it to the faculty senate at Western, too.

Members want to address other issues, too, such as mandatory minimum sentences, distinguishing between hard and soft drugs, and medical use of marijuana.

Callahan and Feeney favor what they call "harm reduction" strategies.

"The punishment for use of drugs shouldn't be any greater than the harm that can be caused by the use of the drug," Feeney said.

"We think there should be more treatment than incarceration."

Callahan, who wants to pursue a career in criminal justice, is a regional leader of November Coalition, a group formed in 1997 by his father and aunt that involves prisoners and their loved ones in advocating for drug reforms.

"It's not easy having someone you really love be in jail that long," said Callahan, who was 16 when his father was imprisoned. "I was so mad when he was taken away, but I've been able to turn it into a positive experience and use it as a way to change the laws."

People interested in the WWU Drug Policy Reform Organization should call 360-650-0748, or go to:

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