Nathan Bush had the bad luck of being a passenger in a vehicle pulled over by police who uncovered a small stash of marijuana inside. The political science major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was charged with felony drug possession.
Craig Selken, now a senior majoring in history at Northern State University in South Dakota, was charged with a misdemeanor when officers found a small amount of marijuana in the common area of the dorm room he then shared with two roommates.
Bush later had his felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor. The story would end there, but because of their drug-related convictions both students lost their eligibility to receive state and federal financial aid under a 1998 provision of the Higher Education Act.
The loss of financial support was disastrous for Selken and Bush, both good students with GPAs over 3.0. They now each work at least one part-time job in addition to their full-time course loads, and they have spent considerable time attending drug counseling.
“If you want to rehabilitate somebody, you don’t want to kick them out of school,” Selken said.
The two young men were among many voices heard at a four-day conference at Georgetown University Law School Nov. 17-20. The conference was organized by the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy to raise interest and support for changing what the group considers to be unfair drug laws.
The foyer where the conference was being held was practically empty at 10 am Sunday morning, when the first speaker of the day was scheduled to begin. Attendees leisurely set up tables where they would hand out pamphlets and news articles and sell t-shirts, hemp hackie-sacks, refrigerator magnets and other items to drum up funds to promote their aims.
Over 180,000 potential students have been denied financial aid for college because of drug convictions since the fall semester of 2000 because of the drug provision of the Higher Education Act, according to literature provided at the conference.
With help from the American Civil Liberties Union and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, Bush and Selken challenged the penalty through a complaint filed in the District Court of South Dakota.
They argued that the policy is illegitimate because felons, murderers and others convicted of criminal offenses enjoyed access to financial aid, but any party convicted of even a minor drug charge lost such rights. Families with the means to continue sending their kids to school are not affected in the least, but those dependent on federal and state support would be hard pressed to find relief.
The judge acknowledged the inequities of the law, but said there were no constitutional grounds on which to rescind it. The judgment stood, but the matter may still proceed to higher courts.
Billy Murphy, a former judge and now a prominent criminal defense attorney who attended the conference, said the drug provision is part of the wider War on Drugs, which he said began in 1968 and originally targeted inner-city blacks.
“White folks use 75 percent of drugs in America,” he said. “Blacks use 13 percent. But 75 percent of people in prison are black.”
He said his goal was not necessarily to support the particular aims of the attendees, but to congratulate them for taking a stand on something they believed in and encourage them to extend their activism to other areas of concern.
“If we don’t watch, look and listen, all that you stand for will be for naught,” he said.
A law enforcement component was also represented at the conference by the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization that consists of 700 officers in 50 states and seven countries. The group advocates the legalization and federal sale of all drugs as an alternative to the current War on Drugs, which it considers cost-prohibitive and impossible to win.