Harsh drug laws blow smoke at students

COLUMBUS, Ohio (U-WIRE) — It doesn’t matter if you have a rap sheet a mile long with convictions of assault, rape or robbery, but get caught smoking a joint and it can cost you your student loans.
Welcome to the distorted logic of the war on drugs.
The group For A Better Ohio led a protest Tuesday against provisions in the Higher Education Act of 1998 that prevent students convicted of even the most minor drug offenses from getting federal aid. Some 40 people temporarily blocked the door to the front of Lincoln Tower — where Ohio State’s financial aid offices are located — at around 4:20 p.m. on Tuesday, a number urban legend has said is the police code for marijuana offenses.
It is reality for many students that losing loans would mean denying them an education. To condemn someone to such a distorted penalty for something so harmless as getting caught with a little pot is beyond reason, but common sense has never been a staple of U.S. drug policy.
We’re at a time when recreational drug use is being penalized to irrational extremes. Drug testing is increasingly a standard rite of passage for getting a job, prompted by laws that dangle the carrot of lower workers’ compensation premiums to companies that test. Even more senseless is a proposal in the Ohio General Assembly that would make simple possession of marijuana a criminal offense.
Currently, Ohio has one of the more lenient marijuana laws in the country. Simple possession of under 100 grams is a only a misdemeanor that results in a fine. But a bill sponsored by Rep. Charles Brading, R-Wapakoneta, would recriminalize the offense so users would face jail time.
This bill would do nothing but put more of a burden on our already overcrowded prisons. Combined with absurd mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, prisons must use their resources against drug users at the expense of dealing with violent criminals.
It’s even more bizarre that this is happening at a time when common decency is at last entering the debate over medicinal marijuana. Voters have passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for medical use in Alaska, Arizona, California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington. A study released last month by the Institute of Medicine, much to the chagrin of the rabidly anti-pot U.S. drug czar who sponsored it, found that marijuana has medicinal value and should be reclassified by the federal government.
Legislation proposed this year by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would do just that. Backed by the U.S. Department of Education, Frank has also introduced legislation that would revoke the student loan provisions of the Higher Education Act.
Other lawmakers need to wake up to the fact that many of the victims of this “war” are average citizens whose only crime is daring to use a relatively harmless plant for their own personal pleasure. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates some 10 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the last month, about 18 million have smoked within the past year and nearly 70 million Americans have smoked at some time in their lives.
There’s strength in those kinds of numbers, but for significant change, more than 40 people need to make some noise. If you don’t speak out now, it could cost you your education, job and maybe soon your freedom.

This staff editorial originally appeared in Friday’s Ohio State University Lanterno.