Some push for taking out drug provision

The provision in the Higher Education Act penalizes students with drug offenses.

Cati Vanden Breul

Some students are lobbying Congress to remove a provision in the Higher Education Act that punishes students with drug convictions.

The provision, added in 1998, denies federal financial aid to students with any drug-related offense, including misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

A U.S. House bill introduced in March would remove the drug-penalty provision from the Higher Education Act. Student groups around the country, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, are lobbying to get legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate that would remove the provision.

“We have been trying to get the HEA provision that denies financial-aid funds for drug convictions removed ever since it was put in place,” said Mary Mullen, a second-year University Law School student and president of the student group’s Minnesota chapter.

Mullen said the law hurts people who are already in need of help.

“It’s absolutely incredible to think that we want to deny people who are in trouble access to education,” she said. “It denies them the avenues that would allow them to change. If the government denies you the ability to do something different, you are going to be inclined to take the same path.”

But Joel Johnson, president of the Law School Republicans, said it’s not unreasonable for the government to withhold financial aid from students who commit crimes.

“I don’t think it’s unfair for the government to say that ‘We’ll give you a better opportunity to better yourself with education as long as you follow the rules,’ ” Johnson said.

Students who use drugs in school might not focus as much as those who do not, he said.

The law also discriminates against minorities and low-income students, said Tom Angell, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy communications director.

“The Higher Education Act was created to make college more accessible and affordable, but this provision, added in 1998, really only affects low- and middle-income students, because those who are more well-off don’t rely on financial aid to afford college tuition,” Angell said.

Although black people make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 55 percent of drug convictions, Angell said.

Though the law includes a provision that allows students with drug offenses to receive financial aid if they undergo a rehabilitation program, Angell said, such programs are expensive and unaffordable for many students.

Education should be provided to help people improve their lives, regardless of their income level, he said.

“We should be opening doors,” Angell said. “Instead, we are slamming them shut.”

But by overcoming the loss of financial aid and working to afford college in other ways, students can “clean up their act,” Johnson said.

“Maybe they work for a year and start up later,” he said.

First-time drug-possession offenders become eligible for aid again after one year, while students with a distribution charge must wait two years.

Although the law is meant to deter drug use, many students do not know the provision exists, Mullen said.

“The deterrent factor doesn’t really help; students don’t know that this will be their punishment,” she said.

And students are not thinking about it either, said Natalie Lupo, an officer in the University’s Student Network for Abuse Prevention student group.

“If someone’s going to do drugs, the last thing on their mind is that they might be caught and lose their financial aid,” Lupo said.

Education about the harm and consequences of using drugs must start early to have a preventive effect, she said.

“People use drugs or overdose, and then we scold them, but we don’t do much to teach them beforehand,” Lupo said. “A lot of people say it’s common sense, but I don’t think it is. It must be driven into their minds.”

Johnson said that even though he had student loans, he was not aware of the drug provision, and for the law to be more effective, the government must make students aware it exists.