Mar. 30, 2005 – The campaign to repeal a controversial law ostensibly designed to discourage drug use among young people by denying financial aid to anyone convicted of drug offenses is gaining momentum. Opponents of the little known provision in the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) say they are hopeful that they can repeal the law during this congressional session.
Earlier this month, Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), with the support of over fifty members of Congress, reintroduced the Removing Impediments to Studentsâ€™ Education Act (H.R. 1184), also known as the RISE Act. If enacted, the measure will repeal the Higher Education Actâ€™s drug law, which has denied financial aid to at least 660,500 people with prior drug convictions.
More than 200 organizations and 115 university and college student governments nationwide have called on Congress to repeal the bill, and the opposition is mounting.
"We will be pushing hard this legislative session to get Congress to act," said Chris Mulligan, campaign director of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), a group spearheading the campaign. "Itâ€™s been a real challenge because the campaign deals with drugs. If the word "drugsâ€™ wasnâ€™t in the [HEA] provision, it would have been repealed long ago."
The HEAâ€™s drug component, enacted in 1998, denies financial aid to anyone convicted of a state or federal drug offense. Under the law, a person convicted of a drug offense for the first time is denied financial aide for one year, the second offense bans the student from aid for two years, and a third conviction carries an indefinite suspension. Prospective students convicted of selling drugs are denied federal aid for two years for the first offense and are slapped with an indefinite suspension for a second.
The anti-drug provision has penalized thousands of students, many who are poor and from minority populations.
Even Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican who wrote the embattled measure, concedes that it has had unintended consequences. "This provision was clearly meant to apply only to students convicted of drug crimes while receiving financial aid, not to applicants who may have had drug convictions in years past," Souder has told the press.
But the anti-drug provision has penalized thousands of students, many who are poor and from minority populations, especially with arrests for nonviolent marijuana possession on the rise. According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies arrested a record 755,186 people in 2003 for marijuana related offenses, nearly 662,886 of them for possession.
Marisa Garcia is one of those statistics. In 2000, one day before her 19th birthday, police arrested Garcia for possession of a pipe containing marijuana residue. "It was the first time I was in trouble and I didnâ€™t know what to do," Garcia recalled. "I plead guilty and paid a $400 fine."
Garcia had applied for financial aid, but a couple of months after her conviction, the application form was returned. "My mom had filled out the form, and she didnâ€™t answer one question: do you have a drug conviction?" Garcia recalled. "I called the [Department of Education] and learned that I couldnâ€™t get aid because of my prior drug conviction. I feel that Iâ€™ve paid twice for my mistake."
Erecting more barriers for low-income people wanting to attend college reinforces the countryâ€™s income disparities
Today, Garcia is a junior and sociology major at the University of California at Fullerton. "The person who wrote the law was trying to show how tough he was on drugs, but itâ€™s poorly written," Garcia said. "It doesnâ€™t deter someone from taking drugs, but it does deter thousands of people from getting an education.â€™
According to Education Department statistics analyzed by CHEAR, the HEA provision has denied financial aid to approximately160,500 applicants, but there is no way to measure how many others with drug convictions have not bothered to complete the financial aid form, advised by guidance counselors that they are ineligible for federal assistance.
Advocates for students denied financial aid point out that erecting more barriers for low-income people wanting to attend college reinforces the countryâ€™s income disparities and perpetuates the systems that target low-income people and minorities for drug arrests in the first place.
Ironically, Congress is moving to re-authorize the Specter education grants program (named for Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania), which are awarded to inmates under age 25 who are eligible for parole within five years.
"The federal government is giving financial aid to incarcerated young people, but if you are a drug offender who isnâ€™t in prison, but [who] has paid your debt to society, you arenâ€™t eligible for financial aid," Mulligan of CHEAR told The NewStandard. "Even though everyone agrees that the Specter grants are a good thing, the [HEA provision] doesnâ€™t make sense."
Some state legislators are also weighing in. Last year, the Delaware General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the US Congress to repeal the HEA drug crime provision. In early 2005, the Arizona General Assembly introduced a resolution that, if enacted, would also call on Congress to repeal the provision. That resolution is expected to come to a vote soon. CHEAR has urged their supporters in Arizona to contact their elected state officials to express their support for the measure.
Meanwhile, on March 2, Rhode Island state legislators introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would help students affected by the federal measure. If passed into law, the Rhode Island Higher Education Act of 2005 would fully compensate any student who has lost financial aid due to a prior drug conviction for the amount of money they would have received.
"The HEA anti-drug provision wrongfully denies equal opportunity for education to young people who have made mistakes in the past," said State Representative Joseph Almeida, the Rhode Island billâ€™s sponsor. "We should let these kids move on with their lives instead of holding their mistakes against them by denying financial aid."
Advocates for the RISE bill to repeal the HEA provision are encouraged by a recent initiative of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a congressionally appointed committee that advises lawmakers on higher education student aid policy. "We hope Congress follows the Committeeâ€™s lead," commented Tom Angel, communications director for the Washington DC-based Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Still, no one expects the fight to repeal the law to be without obstacles, given the political implications of the issue. Mulligan said that while there are no Republican co-sponsors to the RISE bill, there are several Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate who might be sympathetic. "We just need to convince them that repealing this fundamentally flawed policy will not make them soft on drugs," he said.