Provision suspends aid from drug users

Coralie Carlson

Federal lawmakers want to give students another reason to just say no.
In an effort at curbing skyrocketing drug use among young adults, the House quietly passed a provision barring students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid.
The provision, which was tacked onto the Higher Education Act, won House approval last Wednesday after little floor debate. The massive legislation shapes federal policies for financial aid and college funding for the next five years.
If the Senate passes the Higher Education Act with similar language, it could spell trouble for drug-using University students. And judging by police records, the number of people at risk is increasing.
Drug abuse violations at the University more than quadrupled during the past four years. Campus police cited more than 70 people for drug-related offenses in 1997.
The University’s rise in drug infractions could stem from higher levels of drug use before students get to college. According to Partnership for a Drug Free America, the number of eighth-graders using marijuana has tripled since 1991. High school seniors have been using at a 58 percent higher rate.
“Casual drug use shouldn’t be looked upon lightly,” explained Bill Teator, a spokesman for Rep. Gerald Solomon. The New York Republican spearheaded the House provision.
The clause makes students convicted of any state or federal drug offense ineligible for federal grants, loans or work study programs.
A student convicted of possession would be disqualified from financial aid programs for one year after a first offense, two years after a second offense and indefinitely after the third.
Selling drugs brings stricter punishments: One violation results in two years without aid and a second revokes financial aid altogether.
Teator said students could reapply for financial aid after undergoing rehabilitation.
“It ought to be crystal clear,” Teator said. “Federal student aid is not a right, it’s a privilege.”
The provision is similar to some of Solomon’s past initiatives. In 1982 he wrote an amendment to withhold financial aid from students who refused to register for the draft. Eight years later, he wrote an amendment stalling federal funds for states unless they suspend driver’s licenses of convicted drug offenders.
During a floor speech where he decried flag burning, Solomon’s views on drug users became even more evident.
“What we cannot be proud of is the unshaven, shaggy-haired, drug culture, poor excuses for Americans,” he said.
But Solomon’s latest advance in the war against drugs doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“It seems to be one of those tactics of ‘Lets put the fear of God in them,'” said Ralph Rickgarn, coordinator of student behavior for housing and residential life.
Rickgarn said the measure only addresses drug use, while ignoring other crimes.
“You can drink yourself into oblivion — that’s another drug — and you’re not going to get punished,” Rickgarn said, adding that the University community has a bigger problem with alcohol abuse than with drugs.
University Police Sgt. Joe May said he didn’t agree with the legislation because possession of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor. The proposed punishment doesn’t fit the crime, he said
At least one legal expert said the law could face constitutional challenges.
Teresa Nelson, legal counsel at the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, said the law could be construed as an undue government burden.
Still, support for Solomon’s initiative stretches outside of Washington, D.C., where some see it as a way of controlling drug use.
After seeing campus drug use rise, University Police Detective Charles Miner said something needs to be done.
“If it’s a deterrent for even one person, then it’s useful,” he said.