NYTimes.com Article: A Student Aid Ban for Past Drug Use Is Creating a Furor

The article below from NYTimes.com
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Dear Everyone;

A very interesting article in NY Times on how small time drug users are punished more severely then felons for student aid. Yes, the taxpayers as a group should not be involuntarily financing someone elses college education. But it is another drug law warped by politicians.

Ron Getty
SF Libertarian


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A Student Aid Ban for Past Drug Use Is Creating a Furor

March 13, 2004

Given that she had been thrown out of the house by 13 for
declaring herself a lesbian, spent her teenage years
sleeping on subway trains and rotting piers and yet still
managed to get her G.E.D., Laura Melendez figured she had
kept her nose pretty clean.

Sure, there had been a few arrests for smoking marijuana,
but after an entire adolescence spent on the streets, with
far more visits by the police than by her parents, what did
those offenses really amount to?

"It means I'll be denied an education," said Ms. Melendez,
who is from the Bronx, now 22 and applying to college.

If Ms. Melendez had been an armed robber, a rapist, even a
murderer, she would not be in the same predicament. Once
out of prison, she would have been entitled to government
grants and loans, no questions asked.

But under a contentious provision of federal law, tens of
thousands of would-be college students have been denied
financial aid because of drug offenses, even though the
crimes may have been committed long ago and the sentences
already served.

"It is absurd on the face of it," said Representative Mark
Souder, Republican of Indiana.

Mr. Souder, who wrote the law, says the Clinton and Bush
administrations have both turned it on its head, taking a
penalty meant to discourage current students from
experimenting with drugs and using it to punish people
trying to get their lives back on track.

"I am an evangelic Christian who believes in repentance, so
why would I have supported that?" he said. "Why would any
of us in Congress?"

The aid prohibition has been a sore point since its
enactment in 1998, inciting debate and recriminations all
around. Members of Congress have accused the Clinton and
Bush administrations of distorting the law's intent. The
Education Department has fired back, saying Congress handed
it a vague and sloppy law - one referring simply to "a
student who has been convicted" of a drug offense - that
the department is faithfully enforcing.

Students are equally perplexed. After serving almost 10
years in prison for attempted murder, Jason Bell went
straight to college on federal grants and loans. Now a
senior at San Francisco State University, he helps other
ex-convicts enroll in the university but often has the
hardest time assisting drug offenders whose crimes were
minor, certainly a lot less serious than his.

"It's a form of double jeopardy," said Mr. Bell, 32. "They
do the time, but then there are still roadblocks when they
finish. I don't believe people should be punished twice."

Some members of Congress say they are pushing to rewrite
the law for precisely that reason. And, for the first time
since the prohibition took effect, the president's budget
includes a commitment to revise it - not to throw it out,
but to narrow its scope so that students like Ms. Melendez
get a second chance.

"It would really take a lot off my mind," she said. "I need
to go to school. I can't just leave it like this."

Yet the changes would perpetuate what some members of
Congress see as the law's contradictions. Under President
Bush's language, anyone who violated drug laws before going
to college could get financial aid, regardless of the
offense. That would be in keeping with Mr. Bush's
philosophy, as laid out in his State of the Union address,
that "when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead
should lead to a better life."

But those already in college when they commit a drug
offense, however small, would still be stripped of aid, for
at least a year. The idea, supporters say, is to continue
trying to dissuade students from using drugs, especially
since they are being educated with taxpayer money.

The problem, detractors say, is that the law would still
impose stiffer penalties on drug use than on any other

"We should abolish the whole rule," said Representative
Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. "Not that we
should encourage drug use, but you shouldn't single that
out as being worse than rape or arson or armed robbery."

Representative Souder doubts that the prospect of losing
financial aid would deter a murderer or a rapist, but says
the same threat does a lot when it comes to drug use. Some
student counselors agree, arguing that at times, students
wrestling with substance abuse need an extra incentive to
stay clean.

Critics, however, have an additional complaint: that the
proposed changes would have the odd effect of barring some
first-time, minor offenders from getting financial aid
while restoring it for more serious drug lawbreakers.

By his own count, Donald Miller, a 53-year-old freshman at
York College in Queens, was arrested 17 times for abusing
drugs and occasionally selling them, a result of what he
describes as a fruitless effort to quiet his schizophrenia.
It left him homeless and addicted.

Now that Mr. Miller is sober and taking his medications
regularly, he has been confronted by the discouraging news
that he is not eligible for financial aid despite living on
less than $600 a month. But under the new rules, he almost
certainly would be.

"It would mean that I could continue all the way through
school," he said.

On the other hand, there is the case of Marisa Garcia, a
junior at California State University, Fullerton. A few
weeks before her freshman year began, Ms. Garcia received a
ticket for having a small marijuana pipe in her car. (It
had some ashes in it, she admits.)

That was her first and only offense. Accordingly, she paid
a $415 fine. But she also lost her federal grants and loans
for a year, amounting to thousands of dollars. Under the
revised rules, her penalty would be no different.

"It doesn't make sense," Ms. Garcia said. "To punish
someone by taking away their education? It's

The law does allow students to win back their aid by going
through drug treatment. But when Ms. Garcia looked into
that option, all she could find was residential counseling
that cost as much as her tuition.

"If I couldn't afford to pay for school," she said, "then
how was I supposed to pay for these programs?"

Congressional supporters of the drug prohibition argue that
students should obey the law or surrender the privilege of
financial aid. But they also contend that the aid
prohibition was never meant to punish people for bad
choices they made long ago. Given the way the law has been
applied, Mr. Souder says, students who have been denied aid
because of offenses committed before they were in college
should consider suing the government.

"I know as a conservative I'm not supposed to say this, but
there are lawsuits to be had here," he said.

The Education Department strongly disagrees, contending
that the statute Congress passed does nothing to
distinguish between past and current offenses. By
clarifying it, lawmakers hope to eliminate the confusion
that has surrounded it since its inception. But others
worry that as long as financial aid forms continue to ask
whether students have had a drug conviction, many will
simply assume that they are ineligible.

"There's so much confusion about this law, and it ends up
discouraging people from moving forward with their lives,"
said Michael Dean, a substance abuse counselor in Denver.
"At what point in our society do we say that a person has
paid their debt?"