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The Higher Education Act

Murderer can receive student loans - pot smoker can be denied

From The Week Online with DRCNet -

A provision in the Higher Education Act of 1998, which was signed into law by President Clinton, will deny student loans to college students convicted of drug offenses. Under the new provision, students who are convicted of drug possession will face a one-year suspension of federal student aid. A second offense will result in a two year suspension, and loans will be denied "indefinitely" upon a third conviction.

Congressman Mark Souder (R-IN), who sponsored the initial house bill and added the drug testing requirements, said last May that he hopes the law "will encourage all young people with plans for college and the opportunities it provides to avoid drugs or to get help if they are already using them. You can't learn if your mind is clouded by drugs. By passing our language as part of the Higher Education bill, the House has expressed its commitment to help identify students who are in trouble with drugs, hold them accountable for their actions and give them an opportunity for a productive, drug-free future."

But Rob Stewart, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, DC, says that the provision is unfair in that it singles out drug offenders for special punishment. "If someone can serve time for other more serious offenses, such as murder or robbery, and still be eligible for a student loan, then it is discriminatory to deny the same privilege to the non-violent drug offender who has served time or paid the fine," he told DRCNet.

Stewart fears the law will have a disproportionately negative effect on the inner city. "The targeting of minority communities by drug enforcement will inevitably result in few African-Americans and Latinos receiving financial aid."

Stewart also said that requiring offenders to complete drug rehab and undergo testing arbitrarily interferes with an individual's privacy. He said, "It has not been established that someone who is arrested and convicted for possession has a drug problem at all, other than the fact that they broke the law. It certainly does not prove that they are incapable of learning or participating in a college or university."

"The government wants to 'send the right message,'" he told DRCNet, "and say that drug use is wrong. But they are ultimately sending the message that the government is willing to violate individual rights and to bar people from bettering themselves."

Keith Stroup, NORML's executive director, had this to say, "This has come up before, but usually it gets weeded out." Stroup objects to the legislation because it singles out nonviolent drug offenses for harsh penalties. "If a student is falling-down drunk and drives, no problem," he said. "If a student commits a violent crime, no problem. But if students get arrested for a joint, they lose their student aid."

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