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Group Pushes For Drug Law Reform

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Students Work to Halt Financial Aid Penalties for Drug Offenses

Stationing themselves in different places on campus this week, members of UConn's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy ( SSDP ) urged their peers to speak out regarding a little-known provision in the Higher Education Act.

This provision, "The Aid Elimination Penalty" dictates that in addition to being punished by the law, students convicted of drug offenses will lose federal financial aid for college.

Punishment is as follows: after a student is convicted of possession of a controlled substance, they lose their aid for one year. After their second offense, they lose aid for two years and after a third offense, they will lose federal aid indefinitely, according to the SSDP Web site.

Punishment for selling a controlled substance is stricter: the first offense results in a two-year loss of federal financial aid and after the second offense the student loses aid indefinitely.

Nearly 200,000 students have been denied financial aid because of this policy, according to SSDP and in the last year alone, 6,106 students were denied federal aid because of drug convictions.

Students who disagree with the penalty argue that it does more harm than good, because drug offenders denied a college education are more likely to turn to illegal activity. They also say the penalty favors wealthy students who don't rely on financial aid to attend college.

Perhaps most of all, they take issue with the fact that the penalty applies only to drug offenders.

No other criminal offense causes you to lose financial aid, according to Tom Angell, spokesperson for SSDP's national office. He said has found that students are outraged to learn that murderers, rapists and burglars are eligible for financial aid, while a student convicted for smoking marijuana is temporarily not. "We think it's a totally counterproductive and senseless policy," Angell said.

A question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ( FAFSA ) form asks whether students have been convicted of possession or selling of drugs. If the answer is 'yes,' the student must fill out subsequent forms to determine how long they will be denied federal aid, according to SSDP.

According to SSDP, in some cases students who complete rehabilitation programs can regain eligibility early. However, the penalty offers no funding for such programs and SSDP argues that students who can't afford college without aid probably can't afford private treatment.

SSDP is an international "grassroots network of students," stationed in Washington, D.C. with chapters across the country and Canada. It seeks to empower students to push for more sensible drug policies and fight back against what it calls a "counterproductive Drug War."

UConn's chapter of SSDP was started last fall by Dan Cornelious, a 7th-semester political science major, who is now president of the 20-member group. The UConn SSDP chapter has been active on campus in a variety of ways this past year, from hosting speakers and discussions - - such as a medical marijuana panel held earlier this month - to working with the administration to change drug policies and punishments.

This week was called the "Week of Action" and was aimed at gaining student support for repealing The Aid Elimination Penalty. Students who walked by the group's tables were encouraged to show their support for the repeal of the penalty by filling out postcards which will be sent to Rep. Joe Courtney.

"Help solve our nation's drug problems," read the postcard. "Restore education to students with drug convictions."

Cornelious said the group's goal is to have 1,000 of the postcards filled out and sent to Courtney's office next week.

"We want to make sure he's paying attention," Cornelious said. "[We want to] show Representative Courtney that this is an issue UConn cares about."

Cornelious said he visited Courtney's office over the summer and spoke about the issue with his staff, who seemed "very receptive to our message."

"We've gotten hints of positive feedback," he said.

"Mr. Courtney believes access to a higher education should be a guarantee for all qualified students," said Brian Farber, Courtney's communications director. "As Congress begins the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act ( HEA ), Congress will certainly review all provisions that may prevent students from receiving the financial assistance needed to pursue a degree."

Morgan Romano, a 1st-semester undecided major and member of SSDP, said she learned about the club at the involvement fair and joined largely out of frustration with inequality in the punishments for marijuana versus alcohol.

Tabling outside the student union Tuesday, she said she thought the issue of revising the HEA was virtually unknown among students.

"I wouldn't know about it if I wasn't in the club," she said.

Source: Daily Campus, The (UConn, CT Edu)
Copyright: 2007 The Daily Campus
Contact: opinion@dailycampus.com
Website: The Daily Campus
 
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