WALTHAM, Mass. -- Highs that lasted for moments have ended in years of lost
education and opportunities for thousands of young people penalized under a
law that has come under increasing assault from legislators, advocacy
groups and dozens of student governments, including the Brandeis University
Union Senate.

Now, some opponents of the law say their efforts to repeal it may be the
first step to developing a broader movement against what they believe is a
failing war on drugs.

A provision in the 1998 Higher Education Act (HEA), which establishes
federal financial aid programs and must be renewed every four years,
restricts such assistance to applicants who admit to drug-related
convictions under state or federal law. A nationwide campaign is under way
to repeal that provision, which was introduced by Representative Mark
Souder (R-Ind.) in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), whose congressional district
includes Brandeis, has proposed legislation in the House that would repeal
the drug provision. His bill has been officially endorsed by 43 student
governments, most recently the Brandeis Union Senate, which passed a
resolution to that effect on Sunday night.

"It's economically discriminatory by definition," Frank said of the drug
provision. "It hurts lower-income people, not upper-income people.

"It's this whole mistaken approach that we can just terrorize people out of
drugs," Frank added.

More than 8,100 students have been denied federal aid for the 2000-2001
school year under the rule, but opponents fear this number is likely to
rise next year because the Education Department is stepping up its
enforcement effort.

Last year, the department found that approximately 20 percent of applicants
had left blank the question on the Family Application for Federal Student
Aid (FAFSA) that inquires into previous drug convictions. Swamped with such
incomplete applications, officials decided not to force students to answer
the question and granted aid even to those who had left it blank. The
question has been reworded for this year's FAFSA, and applicants are being
advised that they must answer it in order to be considered for aid.

In another development, Republicans have introduced legislation that would
limit the scope of the 1998 rule in order to ease its enforcement. Under
the proposed amendment, only students convicted of drug offenses while they
are already in college would be denied aid.

"Federally subsidized student aid is a privilege, not a right," Souder
wrote in an article published in USA Today last June. "It is reasonable for
taxpayers to expect a certain amount of accountability from students who
receive financial aid to pursue an education."

Opponents of the 1998 measure have accused it of unfairly discriminating
against lower-income and minority students, however.

"This is something that only affects low-income students," Shawn Heller,
the national coordinator of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP),
said. "It's unprecedented, and it's had a discriminating impact."

SSDP is a student organization that was founded at the University of
Rochester two years ago and urges a reform of American drug policy.

Opponents also point out that African-Americans make up 13 percent of
American drug users, and a similar percentage of the overall population,
but account for 55 percent of drug convictions; given these figures, many
argue that Souder's measure unfairly targets minorities.

The rule does allow students who have completed rehabilitation programs to
receive aid. But, opponents argue that precisely those students who are in
need of federal financial aid are least likely to be able to afford such
treatments.

Some have argued that the exclusive nature of the rule, which penalizes
students only for drug convictions, is also unfair.

"It's a dumb way to deal with drugs," Frank said. "It's singling drugs out
for excessive punishment." Onlookers, Frank said, could ask whether
"'smoking marijuana is worse than aggravated assault.'"

"You can axe-murder your grandmother and get financial aid," Eileen
O'Leary, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Financial Aid
Administrators and the director of financial aid at Stonehill College,
said. "It doesn't seem like a rational response."

Activists who are urging a repeal of the measure have emphasized that
student involvement is indispensable to their cause. Dozens of
organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Organization
for Women and American Public Health Association have formed a "Coalition
for HEA Reform" that calls upon students to pressure their representatives
in Congress to act against the drug provision.

The Union Senate's resolution, which claims that the drug provision is
"discriminatory" and that it targets low-income students, was approved
unanimously and with little discussion. The resolution will be forwarded to
SSDP, according to Senator-at-Large Jesse Richman '01, its sponsor.

"I think most of the student body would support (it).

"When you put it all together," Richman said of the similar actions of
other student government groups, "I think it really leaves an impression."

That sentiment was echoed by O'Leary.

"Students have more power than they might think," O'Leary said. "When
students step up to the plate and say, 'I vote and I care,' they can make a
very big impact."

O'Leary's organization brought the drug provision to Frank's attention two
years ago and asked him to act against it.

Heller said the law has managed to galvanize an unusual number of people
into action, and expressed hopes that it would establish momentum for a
re-consideration of the drug war.

"The student movement has really blown up over this," he said.

Heller said SSDP does not expect Frank's legislation to pass in this
Congress, but added that a concerted effort to build support for a repeal
now could make it "that much easier" to abolish the drug provision when the
HEA is renewed once more in 2002.

Students are uniquely positioned to comment not just on the HEA drug
provision, but on American drug policy in general, Heller said.

"We were the first generation to grow up with these harsh laws," he said.
Students can legitimately claim, he added, that "we haven't been protected.
The children are saying, 'We're not protected under this policy.'"

Richman agreed that building opposition to the HEA drug provision may be
one way to rally people to the cause of reforming drug policy in general.

"It's an egregious example of what's wrong with drug policy in America," he
said of the drug provision.

Student activists have not been the only ones rallying behind the Frank bill.

SSDP is urging college administrations to consider endorsing a repeal of
the drug provision, and Hampshire College has already taken that step.

Hampshire has also established a $10,000 fund to support students who are
denied federal aid under the drug provision.

John Hose, Executive Assistant to the President, said that if asked to
endorse a repeal, Brandeis "would take its time and look at this issue
carefully."

He said the University receives many requests to endorse political
positions, but added that "we generally limit the positions we take (to)
matters of education policy.

"This would be the sort of request we would look at," he said.

Richman said the student government should ask the administration to
consider an endorsement of Frank's repeal legislation.

"I'd love to see the administration sign on," he said. "I'd love to open a
dialogue there."


Newshawk: M & M Family
Pubdate: Fri, 16 Mar 2001
Source: The Justice
Copyright: 2001 The Justice
Feedback: justice@brandeis.edu
website: http://www.unet.brandeis.edu/~justice/main.html
Address: Brandeis University MS U14, PO Box 9110, Waltham, MA 02454-9110
Telephone: (781)736-3755
Facsimile: (781) 736-3756
Author: David Dagan