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Congress Re-evaluating Law That Denies Aid to Students Convicted of Drug Crimes

Congress is re-evaluating a five-year old law that denies financial aid to college students with drug convictions.

Tens of thousands of students are denied federal grants and loans every year because of drug-crime convictions. In September, the House will vote on a bill that could change that.

The bill would allow students convicted of drug crimes committed before they started college to be eligible for federal aid. Students convicted during college, however, are out of luck.

“There needs to be some incentive to keep you from getting on drugs,” says Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a member of the House Education Committee that approved the plan last month. “The loss of your student aid is an appropriate tool.”

Critics of the proposed change say the bill doesn’t go far enough, arguing that the bill should get rid of the law entirely. And they charge the bill is discriminatory, because most people convicted on drug charges are minorities or from low-income families.

“The drug provision is about identifying a group of individuals and saying they are unworthy because they have made bad decisions in the past,” says Lissa Jones, executive director of Minnesota-based African-American Family Services.

Chris Mulligan, campaign director of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, estimated that 35,000 students lose their aid every year because of the provision. Officials say there is no way to track the law’s effect because convicted students usually don’t apply for aid.
“It’s still really going to affect the average college student caught with a joint on campus,” Mulligan says.

Jill Johnson, 21, paid a $600 fine last summer after trying to sneak marijuana and a pipe into a concert. She says she shouldn’t be denied aid for only smoking occasionally.

“I think that I deserve to have money and be able to go to school. … I go back home to Elk River, and everybody’s doing [methamphetamines] and they’re doing [cocaine] and all this stuff,” she says. “I mean, I’ve never touched it. I look at them, and I think they have a drug problem.”
Joel Johnson, past president of the University of Minnesota Law School’s College Republicans, argues that the law doesn’t discriminate.

“It emphasizes what society deems is appropriate behavior,” says Johnson. “We’ve said drug use is a bad thing, something we want to deter. This is no more discriminatory than the drug laws themselves.”
Student groups have lobbied Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., to sponsor a Senate bill to eliminate the law. In a statement, he said the current law as it stands is “a reasonable approach.”

The current law punishes students with one federal or state possession conviction with a year of lost aid. For a second offense, students lose two years of aid, and a third offense takes away the aid indefinitely. Students convicted of selling drugs lose two years of aid on the first offense, and are permanently ineligible after the second offense.

— Associated Press

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