Murderers Welcome, Pot Smokers Not

You can murder, maim and molest, and still be among the masses of college students who qualify for federal financial aid. But get caught smoking a joint, and you have to pay your own way; if you can afford it, that is.

The Bush administration has stepped up efforts to enforce a relatively new law that suspends financial aid to anyone convicted of any drug crime, felony or misdemeanor, state or federal. Those convictions can range from smoking marijuana to dealing hard narcotics.

That's right, you could be sitting next to a fully funded convicted pedophile in Psych 101, but not next to an unfortunate soul who was caught taking Ecstasy at a rave.

For this school year, an estimated 34,000 students and college applicants across the country will be denied financial aid because of drug convictions, nearly a three-fold increase from last year, when less than 10,000 were denied aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The suspensions have caused students across the country to organize in opposition, and they have the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the National Council for Higher Education.

"This measure is denying one of the basic principles of empowerment in this country: education," says Jody Widenhouse, who last fall helped organize a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at North Carolina State University. "It is taking away that opportunity, and people do not react favorably to that attitude towards the problem."

The national student organization, based in Washington, D.C., has chapters at 148 universities and high schools.

"This issue in particular ... is forcing people to deal with the nonsense politics of the drug war," Widenhouse says.

Since the 2000-2001 academic year, students have been losing financial aid eligibility by way of the "drug free student aid" provision of the Higher Education Act.

The provision was put into practice during the last school year and denies student loans, federally funded grants and scholarships, and work assistance to drug offenders.

Students can regain the assistance after a minimum one-year suspension, but only after completing a rehabilitation program that adheres to federal guidelines, as well as agreeing to submit to random drug testing.

The Case of Chris Spurry

Activists are citing one student in particular as a victim of the law.

Chris Spurry was convicted in June 1999 for possession of marijuana.

Seventeen months later in December of 2000, Spurry had just finished his first semester at Arkansas State University, where he was studying for a bachelor's degree in biology and an associate's degree in elementary education.

Then he got a letter from the university. He was no longer eligible for financial assistance and would have to pay $800 for tuition for the next semester if he wanted to continue his studies.

"I couldn't believe it at first," Spurry says. "I paid for my offense. I had to give up my [driver's] license, pay fines. People are being punished twice for their crimes. It just doesn't make sense."

Spurry -- who is married with children -- dropped out before classes resumed. "With three children, I can't afford to go to school without that aid. I just can't do it."

Says NCSU activist Widenhouse: "This only shows people what the drug war is doing: It is taking away opportunity and punishing people for their crimes more than once."

Finding students in the Triangle like Spurry is proving difficult, according to one activist.

"The problem is, not a lot people are willing to come forward on this," says Zach Mazer, the former vice president of the N.C. State chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. "No one wants to come forward and say, 'Hey, I have a drug conviction and it cost me my education.'"

Mazer, who graduated this month and remains active in the SSDP, says the State chapter will keep searching for an area student who has been denied financial aid because of a drug conviction. Ideally, they'd like to help that student find other sources of educational money as well as bring him or her to the attention of the media. The search may be easier than in previous years, according to Mazer, because of the greater number of victims now involved.

"People all across this country are struggling to find [students who've been denied]," he says. "For this year, there's going to be many, many thousands of these people, yet they're elusive."

A Question of Fairness

The "drug free student aid" measure is the brainchild of Congressman Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana. In 1994, Congressional Quarterly named him one of the four most effective "conservative true believers" in Congress.

He also is one of the more passionate voices when dealing with issues about illegal drugs.

"Unless we all work together ... we are going to continue to lose many more of our young people and adults to the scourge of illegal narcotics," Souder said from the House floor in defense of the law.

In 1998, Souder mustered enough support from his colleagues to amend the federal Higher Education Act to ban financial aid for students with drug convictions. Two years later, the law took effect.

"Federally subsidized student aid is a privilege, not a right," Souder wrote in an op-ed column last year in USA Today. "Is it unreasonable to expect college students ... to refrain from using and selling drugs or risk loosing that aid?"

The Higher Education Act was established in 1965 as one of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives. It created federal programs such as the Perkins and Plus Loans, Pell Grants and work-study programs. The goal was to provide enough financial assistance to those unable to afford college to have the financial resources necessary to go to school and seek a degree. It did not deny aid based on drugs; if it had, many of today's leaders in politics, business and social reform never would have passed the test.

But times have changed, Souder and his supporters say. Recipients of financial aid should be accountable for their actions and think twice about using or dealing illegal drugs while receiving money from the federal government. Killers, drunk drivers and rapists, however, apparently need not think even once about their actions.

For this reason and others, critics are seeking to repeal Souder's singular assault on drug use and raise various legitimate questions: What does it mean for former drug users, for whom a college degree can be a turning point in their lives? Why doesn't it address the particular circumstances of an individual drug offense, such as separating dealers from occasional users? Does it discriminate in larger numbers against low-income minorities in neighborhoods where drugs are more of the landscape than cocktail parties are in the suburbs?

"This measure raises all kinds of issues, not the least of which are punitive and equal protection concerns," says Rachel King of the ACLU's national headquarters in Washington D.C. "The law is a bit arbitrary to begin with."

Adds Mazer, the former SSDP official at State: "It is really sort of an example of treating student drug offenders as a second class group of citizens, maybe even lower than that."

You Must Answer Question 35

The law has very specific guidelines: First convictions of possession carry a one-year suspension of federal aid; second convictions carry a two-year suspension; and third convictions result in a permanent suspension of aid.

Penalties for dealing are twice as tough: A first offense results in suspension for two years, and a second offense eliminates any chance of financial aid.

Strict guidelines are placed on regaining eligibility. Offenders have to complete a federally approved drug treatment program and submit to two announced drug tests once they complete the program. The law doesn't take into consideration that treatment is expensive and availability is limited; nearly one-half of the people seeking treatment either can't afford it or find an opening, according to the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

King has firsthand experience with the difficulties of treatment.

"When I was a public defender, I had clients who had to wait months to get on a list for drug treatment," she says. "For lower income folks, there is not treatment widely available."

"We cannot pretend this is a race neutral policy," says Corye Barbour, legislative director of the United States Student Association. "African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population but 38 percent of those arrested for and 58 percent of those convicted of drug offenses."

When Bill Clinton was president, students were able to avoid the issue altogether. The question on their financial aid applications asked whether the student had "never been convicted of any illegal drug offense." Many found the wording of the question to be confusing, and around 279,000 applicants left the question blank. The Clinton administration simply opted not to enforce the provision and let the blanks count as "no." But to those who checked "yes" on the form, 9,114 lost their aid.

But the Bush administration recently announced it would begin to enforce the law. The recently revamped financial aid applications now have a bold flag: DO NOT LEAVE QUESTION 35 BLANK.

Of course there is one way to beat the system: Lie.

Very few applications are checked at the federal level, and financial aid administrators at individual colleges and universities often don't have the resources to conduct criminal background checks. Most local administrators simply don't have the time to "play judiciary," says Julie Rice-Mallette, director of financial aid at NCSU.

Can the Ban Survive?

Earlier this year, Congressman Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced a resolution that would repeal the ban on federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. Frank says his resolution seeks to restore equity to the system. Judges handling individual drug cases already had the power to suspend financial aid to drug offenders before the federal ban took effect. Frank says he wants that discretion returned to judges without broad-based bans from the federal government.

"The authorities previously had the discretion to bar aid to people based on the severity of their crimes and whether they are taking steps to rehabilitate themselves," Frank says. "My bill would simply restore that discretion. This would allow some people, who may have had difficulties with drugs but are now taking steps to improve their lives by pursuing a higher education, to continue to be eligible for aid."

As of last month, Frank's proposal had attracted 52 co-sponsors, including Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat from Charlotte. (ATT Atlanta editors: Rep. Cynthia McKinney who represents Gwinnett and DeKalb County is another co-sponsor).

But the reform legislation has been stuck in committee since April.

With the new Bush administration comes new challenges.

For drug reformers, the task has been getting tougher, not only with the new enforcement measures for financial aid, but the general attitude toward drugs overall.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is a dedicated drug warrior. Bush's nominee for "Drug Czar" is John Walters, a graduate of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Walters is known as an extremist, even in drug war circles. He quit a Clinton administration post in protest over increased spending for treatment.

What it adds up to is this: For those like Chris Spurry, the ordeal is frustrating and contradicts the goal of using education as a means of societal advancement.

"Education has always been a tool of empowerment and self-improvement," Spurry says. "Until this measure is repealed, people are being denied those opportunities."

Marc Schanz is a student at UNC-Charlotte who contributed regularly to Spectator this summer.

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