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April 3, 2006 - Daily Tar Heel (NC Edu)

Leaders Protest Federal Drug Law

Advocate For Convicted Students To Get Aid

By Elizabeth DeOrnellas

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Students who want the federal government to say "yes" to their aid applications must remember to just say no.

Convicted drug offenders are denied federal student aid because of a provision added to the Higher Education Act in 1998. But the provision is now being challenged in court.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education responded to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Students for Sensible Drug Policy more than a year ago.

The department released a state-by-state report that shows the number of students who have been denied aid because of that provision.

According to the report's data and a formula provided by SSDP, 2,068 students in North Carolina were denied aid based on the past six FAFSA filings.

SSDP sued the department because of its initial refusal to generate the state-by-state breakdown.

Tom Angell, campaigns director for SSDP, said the department wanted to charge $4,000 for the statistics, claiming the information could lead to drug legalization and could provide profit for SSDP.

The state-by-state breakdown will help SSDP rally congressional support, Angell said.

"Once they know how many students in their state have had their lives derailed by a policy they've done nothing about, it's much harder to ignore that," he said.

SSDP and the ACLU filed a lawsuit on March 22 to repeal the denial of federal student aid to drug offenders.

ACLU attorneys contacted Erwin Chemerinsky, Duke law professor and one-time candidate for the deanship of the UNC School of Law, to assist in the case.

Chemerinsky said the SSDP has a strong case.

"It's just irrational that federal aid can be given to someone who's been convicted of murder or rape but not to someone who had a small amount of marijuana," he said.

In their complaint, SSDP cites national data from the department that shows about 35,000 students each year are denied aid because of drug convictions; more than 200,000 students have been denied aid in the past six years.

Chemerinsky said the numbers show that a large number of students have been affected and that many students who are denied aid lose the opportunity to go to college entirely.

The department issued a statement that puts those numbers in perspective, saying that more than 10 million students received federal student aid last year.

Kris Krane, executive director of SSDP, said his organization believes the removal of aid constitutes double jeopardy because it is a second punishment for students who have already been punished by the criminal justice system.

Also, SSDP officials claim the provision disproportionately affects low-income and minority students, violating the Fifth Amendment's due process clause.

The complaint filed by SSDP cites U.S. Department of Justice statistics that show that blacks make up 13 percent of drug users but more than 62 percent of drug convictions.

The U.S. Department of Education defends congressional support for the provision.

"The general intent is to discourage illegal drug use by the nation's youth," said Valerie Smith, spokeswoman for the department.

Smith said that the provision does not effect everyone with a drug conviction and that students can regain eligibility by completing a drug rehabilitation program.

Krane said students who have lost aid because of a drug conviction should visit to become plaintiffs in the class action suit.

If the lawsuit is successful, all plaintiffs will have their aid reinstated.

Chemerinsky said he believes the lawsuit will be fruitful.

"My hope is that the lawsuit will succeed - if not, action will have to come from the legislature," he said.

"My feeling is that the law is so arbitrary and irrational that it will have to be overturned."

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