Drug Ruling Hamstrings Needy Students

    Here’s a multiple choice question for you: What does the U.S. Department of Education do when college students are convicted of minor drug offenses?

    Enroll them in rehabilitation or counseling? Enforce drug education? Impose fines or community service? None of the above.

    The correct answer: strip them of their financial aid.

    An amendment authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) was added to the Higher Education Act in 1998 to bar students from receiving federal financial aid if ever convicted of any drug offense. Since then, around 200,000 U.S. students have been denied aid, many of whom have been forced to drop out of college as a result.

    While more than 115 student governments oppose the drug provision and 250 organizations wish to repeal the penalty altogether, the federal government continues to turn a blind eye to many legitimate concerns. All Congress has done since the provision’s inception is add a clause to make the amendment apply only to those students who commit offenses while enrolled in college — a lazy excuse for a correction that ignores serious criticisms of the rule.

    Student advocacy groups have it right on this one: The Souder amendment is unfair, unreasonable and ineffective at solving the problems of drug abuse. But a South Dakota federal district court judge’s response to criticisms from advocacy groups has proven to be no exception to this ear-plugging trend.

    With encouragement from the Department of Education, Judge Charles B. Kornmann dismissed a lawsuit filed by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the constitutionality of the limitation, which they claim threatens the due process and double-jeopardy clauses of the Fifth Amendment.

    “”The mere fact that the classification itself results in some inequality or unfairness does not, in and of itself, offend the Constitution,”” Kornmann stated in his ruling to drop the case.

    Maybe not — but this reasoning does not erase the government’s need to analyze the impact of the law or the court’s responsibility to listen to valid complaints. Should we be content with a law because it produces only a little inequality or unfairness?

    The truth is that there are many inherent problems with the HEA drug provision.

    First off, the law will hit certain groups much harder than others. Given the uneven enforcement of drug laws, this law affects people of color more than other groups. Additionally, it singles out students from lower economic classes, who depend more heavily on financial aid to pay for school. Instead of combating drug abuse, this provision limits equal access to college by targeting low-income minorities both in the enforcement and outcome of the law.

    Another interesting facet of this provision is that it denies aid only to those convicted of drug offenses, leaving the educations of sexual and violent criminals paid for.

    Souder and Kornmann defend the restriction, stating that taxpayers should not be paying for the educations of students convicted of illegal drug use; however, they ignore answering why drug offenses merit additional punishment when other crimes do not. Why should taxpayers be subsidizing the educations of other serious criminals?

    In requiring additional punishment — on top of already existing penalties for getting caught with drugs — the department suggests that drug offenses are more serious than violent crimes, and that all drug offenses should be placed on the same level, since smoking marijuana and using harder drugs both lead to the same consequence.

    Let’s be honest: Most of these so-called “”drug offenses”” are college students smoking pot, and despite stringent efforts to reduce abuse, marijuana has become the most widely used illicit drug today.

    Since studies, such as one published in the May 2004 issue of the American Journal for Public Health, have shown that enforcement is not effective in reducing marijuna use, all the law is doing is punishing students for getting caught.

    While supporters claim that the HEA drug provision is intended to curb drug abuse and promote rehabilitation, too much money is wasted on punishment rather than effective anti-drug measures, like treatment and education.

    Kicking students out of school will hardly solve the problem. If anything, removing opportunities would likely increase the chances that students will fall back into drug use.

    Furthermore, if the law is really aimed at reducing drug abuse, why doesn’t it also include underage use of the drug most abused on college campuses — alcohol?

    While Kornmann argued that the Constitution affords no right to higher education or the receipt of financial aid, most would agree that college is a privilege that should be equally accessible to all. Although no one has a fundamental right to a college education, this law favors the wealthy over the poor. To ensure equal access, the government must balance aid, and this amendment drastically skews return or continuation by revoking funds from those students who need it most.

    Although the HEA has provided numerous educational opportunities by supplying federal grants and loans, the drug penalty allows the government to close doors just as easily as they are opened. With today’s high use of marijuana (50 percent of college students have tried it at one point or another) thousands of students will continue losing aid and dropping out of school every year until this relentless law changes.

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