Congress Softens Drug Conviction Penalty for Students
Congress has chosen to scale back a law that strips financial aid from college students with drug convictions. The change to the Higher Education Act allows some students with past offenses to receive aid, but those convicted of drug offenses while enrolled in college will still lose eligibility. The law has affected more than 175,000 students, and some of those left behind by the change are working with
the ACLU to challenge the penalty’s constitutionality in court.
“After years of political posturing and empty promises, Congress has finally helped some students harmed by this misguided policy,” says Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “But this minor change is just a ploy to sweep the penalty’s problems under the rug. Tens of thousands of students will still be pulled out of school every year because politicians failed to listen to our concerns. The only option students have left is to take action in court.”
The revision to the HEA drug provision is included in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which Congress approved late last year. The House vote was a procedural one sending the measure to the president’s desk. The drug provision was originally enacted in 1998.
In January 2005, the congressionally created Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance recommended that the drug conviction question be completely removed from the financial aid application, calling it “irrelevant” to aid eligibility. The committee also stated that the drug question’s mere presence on the form deters countless eligible students from applying. Aid applicants will still have to answer a drug conviction question under the new version of the law.
In late January, SSDP filed a separate lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education over a Freedom of Information Act inquiry into the number of students in each state who have lost aid due to drug convictions. The government refused to grant SSDP a fee waiver, claiming the information could lead to drug legalization and that the nonprofit group may profit from it.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization with college and high school chapters, is part of a coalition supported by more than 250 education, addiction recovery, criminal justice, civil rights and religious organizations seeking the full repeal of the HEA Drug Provision. For a list, see <www.ssdp.org/campaigns/hea/StudentGovernmentOrgEndorsers.pdf>.
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