Bill aims to erase drug amendment

By Nate Sandstrom

Marisa Garcia’s mother brought her an envelope addressed from the federal student aid program. Garcia had enrolled in California State University-Fullerton, but had not yet begun classes. She eagerly opened the letter to find out how much aid she would be receiving. What she found was a request that Garcia answer a question her mother had accidentally skipped on the form to request student aid: “Has the student ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?”

Garcia had recently been charged with possession of marijuana after police found a pipe with residual amounts of marijuana. It was her first and only legal problem. She paid a $415 fine and thought that was the end of it.

After calling to see whether the ticket would affect her, Garcia was told it disqualified her from receiving federal aid for her education because of an amendment to the Higher Education Act in 1998.

Garcia is not the only one who has been affected though. Since 2000, more than 160,000 students have been denied financial aid because of past drug convictions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced a new bill that would repeal the provision of the Higher Education Act. Fifty-five other U.S. Representatives have added their names as co-sponsors to the bill, named the Removing Impediments to Students Education (RISE) Act.

Under the Clinton administration, students who left the question blank were not denied financial aid. But the Bush administration decided to enforce the law that denies financial aid to those who do not answer the question.

The legislation states that a student convicted of a drug possession charge is not eligible for financial aid for one year after a first offense. A second offense disqualifies a student for two years, and a third offense results in an indefinite suspension of financial aid.

Those who are convicted of selling drugs are ineligible for financial aid for two years after a first offense and after a second offense would be suspended indefinitely from receiving aid.

No other criminal convictions are considered when applying for federal financial aid.

U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who wrote the 1998 provision, has argued that the law deters drug use among students who wish to pursue higher education. A spokesman for Souder said that many other bills have been proposed, so the new proposal was “not really news.”

Frank has proposed previous bills to repeal the rule. However, supporters of RISE hope that a recent report released by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance that suggested eliminating the question will help raise support for the bill. The committee was created to report to Congress and the Department of Education on financial aid issues.

The report stated that the question confused many potential applicants and discouraged eligible people from applying for financial aid.

Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said the 1998 provision was not an effective deterrent because many people do not even know it exists.

Some are familiar with the law, but they frequently misunderstand it and incorrectly assume they are not eligible for federal aid, even though the restriction period has passed, he said.

Angell also said preventing people from getting an education undermines drug abuse prevention.

“It’s hard to see how pulling people out of the education system is going to help people stay out of the criminal justice system,” Angell said.

The rule also disproportionately affects minorities and the poor, said Chris Mulligan, campaign director of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform. Mulligan said that the law doesn’t affect students from wealthier backgrounds because they are not eligible for need-based financial aid. And even though whites and minorities have the same drug use rates, minorities are convicted for drug offenses at a much higher rate, he said.

Denying students access to college, and subsequently, higher-paying jobs, only repeats the cycles of poverty that often leads to drug use, Mulligan said.

The law restores eligibility to students who complete a drug rehabilitation program. But Garcia said the program cost more than the tuition for one year.

She said it was not fair for people who had been convicted of possession but do not have drug addiction problems – such as herself – to take the places of those who need the program.

Garcia is now a senior at California State University-Fullerton. She was only able to afford school after her mother refinanced their house. Otherwise, as a member of single-parent household with three brothers, she said she would not have been able to attend school.

“Generally, you only get punished once when you do a crime,” Garcia said. “But I was punished twice.”