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April 2, 2004 - The Western Front, The (WA Edu)

Revision To Law May Restore Aid To Drug Offenders

By Tara Nelson, The Western Front

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Former Western student Charles Weisner, 29, was arrested in 1997 for a felony possession of marijuana - because of a federal law, that charge still haunts him seven years later.

Weisner, along with many students throughout the nation, said he is afraid to file a financial aid application because the Bush administration is stringently enforcing the federal Higher Education Act, which prevents applicants with prior drug convictions from receiving federal aid.

But students such as Weisner may not have to worry much longer if an amendment to the Higher Education Act, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the bill's original author, is passed.

The amendment would remove a retroactive provision that denies students' financial aid for prior drug-related offenses, said Martin Green, press secretary for Souder. Green said he hopes the bill will be introduced within the next month.

The 1998 amendment originally was intended to discontinue aid to students who were charged with drug-related offenses while attending school, Green said. The Clinton and Bush administrations have distorted the meaning of the law to include applicants with prior offenses, he said.

"(The Clinton (and Bush administrations) misinterpreted it and wrote enforcement regulations that created a 'reach-back' provision never included in the original law," Green said. "Thus, federal aid applicants are now asked on their application forms if they have ever been convicted of a drug crime in their past. If they answer yes or refuse to answer, then they might not receive federal aid."

Weisner, who graduated from Whatcom Community College in 2002 with a 3.3 grade-point average and regularly attends meetings at a Bellingham-based narcotics recovery group, said he is trying to get his life in order and wants to complete a degree in chemistry and environmental science at Western. That could be a difficult task, however, since telling the truth about his criminal status on his financial aid application could prevent him from receiving much-needed federal aid.

"I feel like if I tell the truth, I won't get the housing and the help I need to finish school," Weisner said. "I don't really know what I'm going to do about it."

The U.S. Department of Education has denied approximately 140,162 applicants' financial aid as a result of their responses to the question about drug convictions. The question first appeared on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form in 2000, according to a study by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, a national student advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Only one Western student has had his financial aid revoked as a result of a drug-related offense while enrolled in the '01-'02 school year, said Clara Capron, Western director of financial aid.

While the visible impact on Western students may be small, the real impacts are much larger as many would-be students choose to postpone higher education or abandon it altogether, Capron said.

"What this does not address are the students who (chose not to apply for aid)," Capron said. "A lot of kids probably see question number 28 and forget the whole thing."

Under current legislation, the Department of Education will suspend financial aid to students with one-time drug offenses for one year, students with two offenses for two years, students with three offenses would possibly face permanent suspension from financial aid, and students with distribution offenses could face stiffer penalties.

Green also said people often overlook provisions to the bill that mentions rehabilitation.

"A student may resume eligibility if he or she satisfactorily completes a drug rehabilitation program that includes two unannounced drug tests," Green said.

But critics of the policy, such as Tyree Callahan, a former Whatcom student and co-founder of the Bellingham chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, said that even with the possible amendment to the bill, lower-income students would still be at a particular disadvantage.

"If (the students) are applying for financial aid, chances are they won't be able to afford treatment," Callahan said. "There is no tweaking of this bill that would make it acceptable. It's just a discriminatory bill."

Callahan said another problem with the bill is that it punishes people twice for the same crime.

Weisner said he has already had numerous problems finding employment and housing since his conviction in 1997, and the denial of higher education only makes it harder for him to re-establish himself as a productive citizen.

"I've already been denied by housing, by jobs, by school," Weisner said. "If people want to clean themselves up, they should be able to without double scrutiny."

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