America's drug war insanity claimed fresh victims last week. The casualties were rightly front-page news -- a child and her mother murdered in the skies of Peru in the name of protecting our children from drugs. Receiving a lot less attention were the tens of thousands of young people wounded by the Bush administration's decision to strictly enforce a law that denies financial aid to college students convicted of possessing illegal drugs.
The result of a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act, the student loan ban was only sporadically enforced by the Clinton administration. Last year, some 300,000 students who skipped over a question about drug convictions on their financial aid applications still received their loans, while 9,114 students who answered "yes" were denied aid. Under Bush's new standard, the lack of a response will be treated as equivalent to "yes." As a result, it is expected that about 60,000 students will lose their loans, Pell grants and work-study programs this year.
Like so many of our misguided drug war policies, this one clearly discriminates against minorities and the poor. We already know how African-Americans are unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system -- making up only 13 percent of the country's drug users but 55 percent of those convicted of drug possession and 74 percent of those sent to jail on possession charges. Do we really want to transfer this racist bias from our courts to our colleges?
And why make poor kids pay for the same crime twice, while children of privilege are allowed their "youthful indiscretions" without fear of losing the chance for a college education?
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who in February introduced a bill to repeal the law, stresses its unjust nature. "These low-income students," he told me" are in effect being thrown out of school for doing what George W. Bush and Al Gore have done. Now, people might not be enamored with either Bush or Gore, but I don't think anybody would say that America was disserviced by them completing their college education."
Frank's amendment has been endorsed by more than 80 student government associations. In fact, this latest drug war offensive has had a galvanizing effect on campuses across America. Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a leading campus organizer against the drug provision, has received more than 200 requests to establish new chapters in the past month alone.
In addition, a number of schools are establishing scholarship funds for students denied aid under the new guidelines. Among them is Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where Gregory Prince Jr. became the first university president to come out against the law. "Why would you want to exclude people from the educational stream," asks Prince, "when trying to keep them in the stream is the most important thing to do?"
Politicians from both parties who supported the punitive provision are having a hard time answering this question. The extent to which they are feeling the heat is evidenced by the verbal back flips now being performed by the law's sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind. He claims that the legislation was never intended to punish students with prior drug convictions as it currently does.
But didn't he read his own handiwork? Nowhere in the bill does it state that it applies only to convictions incurred while receiving federal aid. In fact, the language couldn't be clearer: "A student who has been convicted of any offense ... involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance shall not be eligible to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance." Maybe Souder needs to go back to school for a refresher class in English composition.
Or economics. He has argued that one of the primary purposes of his legislation is to "help those who abuse drugs receive treatment." But he fails to mention how this treatment is going to be paid for -- his bill doesn't giveth, it only taketh away.
There are currently 3 million people who are not able to get treatment. And someone who is not able to pay for school is probably someone who is not able to pay for rehab either. So add Logic 101 to Souder's courseload.
Here's his first take-home test: "Solve the following conundrum: What kind of twisted reasoning or vindictive social agenda could lead to a law that denies financial aid to a student convicted of smoking a joint but not one convicted of rape, murder, arson or armed robbery? Explain."
And after you explain, repeal.