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Legal Battle Over Law Denying Financial Aid to Students With Drug Convictions Ends

A federal judge has upheld the constitutionality of a federal law that denies financial aid to students with drug convictions.

In dismissing a lawsuit filed by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and other organizations, U.S. District Court Judge Charles B. Kornmann at least temporarily ended the legal battle over the law. Critics say the provision has cost 200,000 needy students access to financial aid programs — including many students of color — while supporters say federal education funding should not go to lawbreakers.

The law denies aid for one year to students convicted of a drug offense. A second conviction means two years without aid, and a third conviction makes the ban permanent.

Before the U.S. Congress passed the law, judges could choose to revoke student aid as part of sentencing but rarely did so.

SSDP had filed suit last March claiming the provision violates the constitution’s equal protection clause by singling out drug offenders while those with more serious convictions — including rape and murder — can still receive financial aid. The group also claimed the rule violates the constitution’s ban on double jeopardy by punishing students a second time following their drug conviction.

Kornmann rejected those claims in deciding the case, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Foundation v. Spellings. He concluded that there is no double jeopardy since students eventually can regain eligibility for aid, he said, and the equal protection clause — often cited in cases of racial bias — does not apply.

Kornmann acknowledged that students convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana may lose all aid while those found guilty of violent crimes still may receive federal help.

“However, the mere fact that the classification results in some inequality or unfairness does not, in and of itself, offend the constitution,” he wrote.

Officials at student groups say they will continue to fight the law. “This decision is flat wrong,” says Kris Krane, SSDP’s executive director. “It’s completely irrational to attempt to reduce drug abuse by kicking students out of school. Putting up roadblocks on the path to education only causes more drug abuse, and there’s no rational basis for doing that.”

More than 70 members of Congress — all Democrats — are co-sponsoring legislation to overturn the law, says Tom Angell, the media director for SSDP. While the bill has made little headway on Capitol Hill so far, prospects may improve if Democrats re-take control of one or both houses of Congress in the November mid-term elections.

Less than two weeks after the mid-term elections, SSDP is scheduling a national lobby day in Washington, D.C., to enlist more support for the bill. “It’s more important than ever that legislators act to overturn this unfair and harmful penalty,” says Krane.

— By Charles Dervarics

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