High Crimes

Imagine you are caught smoking pot in Washington Square Park. You might expect to have your reefer confiscated or have the cops haul you down to the local precinct. But the last thing you'd anticipate is that you would not be going to school in the fall.

On October 7, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Higher Education Act, first created in 1965 to establish student financial assistance, and re-authorized every six years. Buried in the legislation is an amendment that links drug conviction to federal aid eligibility.

H.R. 6 orders the loss of federal financial aid for convictions of any state or federal drug offense, including possession of marijuana or any other controlled substance. The suspension of aid ranges from one year to indefinite, depending upon the number and type of conviction. Possession entails staggered degrees of ineligibility: the first offense is one year, the second two years, the third an indefinite period of time.

Once this provision was made into law, Congress handed it over to the Department of Education, which is responsible for generating the rules to enforce it. Although this provision will not be effective until July 1, 2000, drug convictions in the interim will hurt a student's chance of receiving federally funded work-study money, grants, and loans.

Time could be on your side. If a year has passed from the date of conviction by the time the 2000–2001 financial aid forms are filled out, eligibility will not be jeopardized. This is only true for first-time offenders who are caught for possession and not dealing. But if a year has not passed, you may lose aid. The stakes are even higher for dealing: aid is out the door for two years after the first conviction, and the second disqualifies you indefinitely.

Aside from waiting out one's suspension period, the measure stipulates that a student's only opportunity to regain qualification for aid is to complete a treatment program. However, the Department of Education will not publish acceptable terms for these programs until November 1—and treatment programs completed before that date, even if they happen to match the department's terms, will not comply with regulations.

Although its prime sponsor in Congress claims that campus drug arrests pose a problem nationwide, political organizers like Aaron Wilson—formerly with the New York–based nonprofit Partnership for Responsible Drug Information—speculate the provision's consequences will be patchy, depending on where one lives, and his or her race and class. A repeal campaign against the provision has already been mounted by Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, and the number of concerned students and drug reformers is growing.

The idea of tying a student's financial aid to their drug rap sheet started with a New Yorker from Glens Falls. Now-retired Republican congressman Gerald Solomon first authored the provision suggesting this connection, and although his amendment passed the House and Senate, the language was ultimately stripped from 1992's Higher Education Act reauthorization. Mark Souder, a Republican representative from Indiana, embraced Solomon's vision, and H.R. 6 sailed through Congress, passing by a voice vote of 414 to 4.

"The relaxation of attitudes regarding drug abuse has made it easier for the peddlers of this poison to devastate families and ruin lives," Souder opines. Noting that his legislation "seems to stick in the craw" of special interest groups, he condemns organizations who have spoken out against the provision, declaring their "primary goal can only be the legalization of drugs."

It isn't easy in this political climate to denounce legislation favoring a zero-tolerance stance. Cyndy Littlefield, a Washington lobbyist, explains that "no one wanted to speak out" against the provision. Few politicians were willing to go on the record against the provision. Calling Souder's amendment too "onerous and burdensome to surmount," she believes that members decided it was better to let the provision pass than to initiate the complicated process of defeating a measure.

Souder touts the political benefits of his legislation: "Taxpayers have a right to know that students who have a drug abuse problem aren't using tax dollars to go through school." He proclaims, "Any time you go into the public treasury, the public has a right to hold you accountable." To prove Souder's point, his office cites statistics published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. In a survey of 489 of the largest colleges and universities, drug arrests jumped almost 18 percent since 1995. Souder makes a point of saying, "Those are only the students who get caught."

Enforcing student accountability may prove difficult. What student would actually admit their drug use on a financial aid form, especially if it means forfeiting a year or more of education? Federal financial aid applications for the 2000–2001 school year will be the first time questions about student drug offenses will appear and may be reported to schools.

The Department of Ed has posted on the Web a draft of the financial aid form, which contains the following new question, #28: "If you have never been convicted of any illegal drug offense, enter '1' in the box and go to question 29." (If you have been convicted, there is a number to call and a Web site to visit for more information.) Verification of a student's past offenses is not an easy process, as no central database yet exists for facilitating this background check.

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