National Drug Policy continues to deny students aid

Posted 3:45 p.m. Sept. 12

by Melissa Kronfeld
U-WIRE (DC BUREAU)

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – More than 30,000 college students will be denied federal funding for the 2002-2003 school year due to the Drug-Free Student Aid provision of the Higher Education Act according to an annual report released by the Department of Education.

The HEA provision, which was passed by Congress in 1998, denies federal financial aid to students with prior drug convictions.

A total of 86,898 students have been denied financial aid since the enforcement of the HEA drug provision in 2000 and the DOE estimates that tens of thousands of students will chose not to apply for federal financial aid due to the provision. A drug conviction is the only crime that results in the loss of federal financial assistance. Students convicted of any other crime, including murder or rape, may still receive full funding.

In a recent statement, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the bill’s author, stated that the measure was originally enacted to cut federal funding to those students who received drug convictions while already receiving aid. He also hoped that the bill would act as a means to discourage drug use among high school teens.

The bill works as follows: Those students that are convicted of drug possession are automatically ineligible for aid for one year starting from the date of the first offense and two years starting from the date of the second offense. If convicted of three or more drug-related crimes, students are suspended indefinitely from receiving federal aid.

Students convicted of selling drugs are automatically ineligible to receive aid for two years starting from the date of the first offense and indefinitely if convicted two or more times. Even those students that were convicted of drug related crimes prior to the bill’s enactment could be denied aid.

Students disqualified from receiving aid can regain their eligibility if they complete a federally approved drug rehabilitation program, whether they are drug users or not.

Before the enactment of the 1998 HEA provision, judges had the ability to suspend a convicted drug offender’s eligibility for any type of federal aid on a case-by-case basis. Now suspension of aid is mandatory.

Over 10 million students apply for federal aid annually and according to estimates made by the DOE, and 27 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 admitted to using an illegal substance in 2001.

Despite an increase of more than $12 billion in federal funding to wage the war against drugs since 1982, still almost half of all high school students in the United States admit to experimenting with an illegal substance.

Some civil right’s organizations claim that the drug provision of the HEA affects a disproportional amount of minorities, specifically Hispanics and blacks, who are convicted of drug offenses at a much higher rate then Caucasians in their age group.

Statistics released by the Department of Justice reveal that blacks make up 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug offenders but represent over 62 percent of drug-related convictions and over 70 percent of drug-related incarcerations. Graham Boyd, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Policy Litigation Project believes that the HEA provision is unfair to minorities.

“This law is discriminatory,” Boyd said. “If a student is convicted of a drug offense, and her family can afford to pay for college, she will be unaffected by the legislation, while those who are already in danger of being pushed to society’s margins will not be able to get federal aid to improve themselves.”

The ACLU is not the only voice of opposition. Crucial to the struggle for the bill’s reversal is a group called Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. Located in Washington, D.C., the SSDP works at the campus level to educate students about the bill and rally support against it. Currently, the SSDP is working on 500 college campuses and has 148 officially recognized college chapters across the nation with 350 chapters working to establish themselves for the fall semester.

The SSDP participates in non-violent direct action, engaging in civil disobedience and protests as a means of placing public pressure upon lawmakers to repeal the bill.

The SSDP has even committed some schools to creating a private scholarship and loan fund for the students affected by the HEA. Yale University, Swarthmore College, Hampshire College and Western Washington University have adopted policies allowing for students with drug-related offenses to receive financial aid, despite the amount of time elapsed since their convictions. All four institutions require these students to undergo drug rehabilitation while enrolled in classes.

The SSDP has also been a vital part of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, a wide-ranging coalition including educational, civil rights and drug policy organizations that are intent upon the congressional adoption of a resolution that would eradicate the drug-provision of the HEA. Sixty-seven student governments and five multi-campus organizations have already endorsed the resolution.

The Coalition sent a letter to Congress last May advocating the adoption of their resolution. A bill to repeal the drug provision, H.R. 786, will go before Congress this year with 68 sponsors, but it is not expected to pass.

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