Pubdate: Wed, 05 Apr 2006
Source: Daily Bruin (UCLA, CA Edu)
Copyright: 2006, ASUCLA Student Media
Bookmark: (Youth)
Bookmark: (Higher Education Act)


Murder and rape are pretty heinous crimes, but according to the U.S. 
Congress, felony drug possession is the absolute worst of the worst.

At least, that's the message we can glean from a provision in the 
Higher Education Act, which bars students who have been convicted of 
possessing or selling drugs from receiving federal financial aid or 
student loans. The law, which was inserted into the Higher Education 
Act in 1998, has recently drawn fire from Students for Sensible Drug 
Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which say they 
want it repealed.

According to the law, students who answer "yes" to a question on 
federal financial aid forms that asks whether they have ever been 
convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs can be rendered 
ineligible to receive money. Students who have been convicted of 
selling or possessing drugs once or twice are ineligible for one to 
two years, but three-time offenders are ineligible for life. Since 
2000, about 200,000 federal aid applicants have been denied money 
because of the law.

What's mind-boggling about this is that it makes eligibility for 
federal financial aid hinge on one blot on a criminal record. Given 
the broad swath of serious crimes one could be convicted of - 
possession of firearms, manslaughter, rape - the fact that possession 
of drugs is the one singled out to be the determinant factor seems 
dangerously arbitrary.

Under this provision, a student with a hefty rap sheet who had never 
used or possessed drugs could conceivably fill out a financial aid 
form with few hurdles, whereas a student who had one count of drug 
possession could get tripped up before even applying to college.

Indirectly, this law is suggesting that someone who, say, made an 
innocent mistake a year ago and experimented with drugs is less 
deserving of an education than a hardened criminal. And that's not 
true. They're both equally deserving.

So why discourage them? Education is the great equalizer, a 
cornerstone of what it takes to build up - or rebuild - a life.

Moreover, a report called "Falling Through the Cracks" found that 24 
states deny state-based financial aid to people who are disqualified 
from receiving federal aid, which means people in almost half the 
country who have drug convictions lose out on a more local source of 
financial aid too. Problem compounded.

There is evidence to suggest that even a three-time drug offender can 
reform through education, if given the chance.

The Drug Reform Coordination Network, a group dedicated to drug-law 
reform, has started dispensing scholarships to students, some of them 
former drug addicts, who were denied federal aid because of the law. 
In 2004, the organization dispensed eight scholarships, ranging from 
$600 to $2,000, and all the recipients were students in good standing 
with their schools and never had a repeat conviction.

The author of the law, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., claimed he never 
intended for it to deny aid to students who might be trying to redeem 
past crimes by going to college. He's tried introducing legislation 
that would only apply the law to students who are convicted of drug 
possession while in college, but it has met with little support.

Total repeal might be the only way to mend this broken law. Because 
if the goal here is to teach people how drug use is not the best 
choice they can make, wouldn't you want education to be one of the 
last avenues to which you close them off - not the first?
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman