When Prewitt Witham, a former student at the New England Institute of Technology in Warwick, R.I., was caught with marijuana in his system while driving, he knew he was in legal trouble.
What he didn’t realize at the time was that the offense would end up costing him his education. Under an obscure federal law less than a decade old, Witham was rendered ineligible for the federal financial aid he’d been receiving and had to drop out of school.
“It stopped me from getting the degree that me and my family had paid for,” Witham said. “I’m a taxpayer, and that’s my money … I really don’t think it’s fair.”
Under the Drug Provision to the Higher Education Act, passed in 1998 and enacted in 2000, students convicted twice for possession or once for the sale of illegal drugs are ineligible to receive federal financial aid.
Since the law took effect, more than 180,000 students have been denied federal aid, causing a stir among activists who say the law overreaches the bounds of reasonable punishment.
“We think it’s an overly harsh punishment to say that if you use drugs, you shouldn’t be allowed to become a successful contributing member of society,” said Chris Mulligan, spokesman for Raise Your Voice, an advocacy group. “All Americans need to obey our laws – that’s why we have them. But these things are already dealt with in the criminal justice system.”
With the law up for reauthorization this year, the debate has been rekindled in the halls of Congress. Many lawmakers are looking to revamp the provision, while some would like get rid of it altogether.
Last month in the House, Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., proposed an amendment to the Higher Education Act that would have repealed the provision entirely, but lost committee vote. A bill in the Senate, which takes up the issue next month, would eliminate a question asking about past drug crimes from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
A lighter reform proposed by the bill’s original author, Mark Souder, R-Ind., would make the provision-now retroactive-apply only to convictions handed out while students are enrolled in classes. He says the original law was misinterpreted.
The controversy surrounding the Drug Provision strikes at the heart of a larger debate about how best to combat drug use among American use. Supporters of the law argue that students using drugs are not making the most of their education and should not be afforded taxpayer money.
“Students who are going to ask the American taxpayer to subsidize or pay for their education have to accept that there are responsibilities that come with that privilege,” said Martin Green, a spokesman for Souder. “The American taxpayer shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill if they’re wasting their educations selling or using drugs.”
Green said the provision is meant to be a disincentive for students to use illegal substances, and points out that law allows for aid to be reinstated to students who complete a drug rehabilitation program.
However, those on the other side charge that the law is counterproductive. To deny students an education, they say, only makes them more likely to use drugs in the future.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that all Americans have an opportunity to succeed,” said Mulligan, spokesman for Raise Your Voice. “If you talk about someone who has a drug problem, kicking them out of school is only going to ensure that that problem gets worse.”
Neither supporters nor opponents of the Drug Provision expect the law to be repealed this year, but activists are encouraged by the proposed reforms. Mulligan said he believes most in Congress disagree with the law but are afraid to confront the issue, and he is hopeful it will one day be done away with.
But for those affected by the law, the impact has already been felt.
“If my mother or father was rich, they could just pay for it, but I had to have loans and grants,” Witham said. “I wanted to get my degree, and I really can’t afford to get one right now.”