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March 24, 2006 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Lawsuit: ACLU and Students Sue Feds Over College Aid Ban for Drug

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Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project filed suit in federal court in South Dakota Wednesday seeking to overturn the federal law that bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods of time.

Some 35,000 students a year have been denied aid under the law, though that number will soon fall under a partial reform to the law passed earlier this year that would limit its application to students who are enrolled in college when busted.

The suit names Education Secretary Margaret Spelling as the defendant, but the real target is the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision, authored by leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) in 1998.

Since the act took effect, more than 180,000 students have been denied financial aid for drug crimes as trivial as possession of a joint. No other criminal conviction-not murder nor rape nor robbery -- results in a similar federally-mandated loss of financial aid.

The ACLU argues that the law is unconstitutional because it penalizes students already punished by the courts, which amounts to double jeopardy. The group also argues that the law violates students' rights to due process and equal protection under the law because it has a disproportionate impact on black Americans, who are more frequently convicted of drug offenses than whites despite equal drug use rates.

Though not a party to the lawsuit, the John W. Perry Fund, a scholarship program created by DRCNet Foundation that assists students losing their financial aid because of drug convictions, played a key role in the effort -- two of the three student plaintiffs were located by DRCNet as a result of their contacting the Fund last year.

Kraig Selken of Northern State University in South Dakota is one of them. Selken was arrested for simple marijuana possession last October after police found a joint in the home he shared with two other students. He did three days in jail with 57 days suspended if he sought treatment.

Under the HEA drug provision, students can have their federal aid reinstated if they attend a treatment program that includes random drug tests, but Selken's program didn't offer that and the court didn't order it, so he is out of luck on keeping his student loan.

Selken, who is carrying a 3.0 grade point average as a history major, will have to delay his college education if he cannot receive federal financial aid, he told Bloomberg News Wednesday. "The thing that it ends up being aimed at is just to deter education," Selken said. "It's not about deterring drug use."

But Rep. Souder held firm, telling Bloomberg students "who are frittering away their educations by dealing or using drugs" shouldn't expect taxpayer handouts.

"If students want to pay for their educations themselves and use drugs while doing so, that's one thing," Souder said in a written response to a request for comment. "If they expect to receive taxpayer funds while using drugs, that's something else."

While Souder may be standing tall, it is not up to him but the courts to decide this case.

In the meantime, the search for plaintiffs continues. If you or someone you know has lost student financial aid because of a drug conviction, visit click here for more information about becoming a plaintiff. Click here to read the SSDP v. Spelling complaint online (PDF Format).

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