Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2005 / 2 Adar I 5765
Debra J. Saunders
Here's another example of how America's war on drugs has
devolved into a war on people.
In 1998, Congress passed an amendment in the Higher Education
Act to deny federal financial aid to college students convicted for
possession or sale of illegal drugs. In America, you can be convicted for
rape, murder or drunk driving and still qualify for federal aid as long
as you didn't smoke pot.
The measure isn't as harsh as it first sounds. Convictions
before age 18 don't apply. The ineligibility period lasts for one year for a
first-possession offense and two years for a first-dealing offense, but is
"indefinite" for repeat offenders. Even then, would-be students can have the
ban lifted by completing drug rehabilitation and passing two drug tests.
Despite that, it's still a bad idea.
It's so bad that U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has suggested
that students sue the government if they are denied aid for long-ago
convictions. Souder's aides blame "the Clinton administration's
misinterpretation" of the law, though they still support the ban as a
deterrent. They say the law was never meant to apply to offenses committed
before entering college. Souder aide Martin Green explained that the
congressman's evangelical Christian beliefs reject punishing people for old
wrongs they have addressed.
In that spirit, Souder has tried repeatedly to change the
amendment so that it only applies to arrests of current students. But, you
see, in Washington, it is easier to pass a bad law than to fix one.
Better to junk the whole thing, says Marisa Garcia, who in 2000
discovered she couldn't qualify for student aid because of an arrest for
possession of a marijuana pipe. Now a junior at California State University
at Fullerton majoring in sociology, Garcia was able to stay in school with
the help of her mother, and she now qualifies for federal financial aid. But
her experience with the law was not positive.
Souder's staff claims the ban is a deterrent to drug use. No
way, responded Garcia. She didn't know about the ban before her arrest. If
the law is a deterrent, it is a deterrent to going to college. A
congressional advisory committee agrees, as a report released last month
noted that drug questions "can deter some students from filing for financial
Garcia also doesn't believe the government should punish her
twice for one crime. "I had already paid my fine. I broke the law. I have a
misdemeanor on my record now," said Garcia. If you commit other crimes, "you
get punished once. I don't think that people with drug convictions should
get punished twice."
For its part, the Souder camp really does think the ban is a
deterrent. It's not too harsh, it says, because students can attend drug
rehab. (Garcia said rehab cost more than tuition.) Martin Green said the ban
prevents those who would "squander taxpayer dollars" adding, "These are
not going to be your best students."
I don't know that Green is right about that. In my college
years, there was no shortage of students who, despite their drug use, had
high GPAs. Indiana's new Republican governor, former Bush budget director
Mitch Daniels, was arrested for marijuana possession in college, and it's
pretty clear he learned something at Princeton.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has led the fight to repeal the
Souder amendment, supported by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. I wish
them luck and GOP support.
I agree with Souder that lawbreakers do not have an automatic
right to federal financial aid, although the government may be committing
double jeopardy by punishing convicts twice for one offense.
To the charge that Souder is soft on other crimes, his staff
responds that he is willing to expand the list of offenses. It's funny,
though, because when Souder had his shot at legislation, he targeted drug
users and dealers instead of violent or career criminals.
My theory on the drug war is that it is popular largely because
parents will support draconian sentences for other people's children (bad
kids) in order to protect their own children (good kids) from doing what the
bad kids do. It doesn't occur to these parents that their kids could be on
the punishment end. They think they're on the side of law and order.
Not everyone with a badge agrees. John W. Perry was a New York
police officer who publicly protested drug-war excesses. He was signing his
resignation papers on Sept. 11 when the first plane hit the World Trade
Center. He grabbed back his badge and gun, rushed to action, and died in the
service of others.
Opponents of the Souder amendment set up a scholarship fund in
Perry's name for students who couldn't get student aid because of the Souder
legislation. Over the phone Wednesday, Perry's mother, Pat, talked about her
son. He was a "health nut," Pat said, who didn't use drugs but "had sympathy
for people who weren't as strong as he was." As a police officer, he saw the
excesses of the drug war, said Pat, "and he didn't think it was fair."
And it isn't.
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