DURING the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush was asked whether he had ever tried cocaine. His answer was that he hadn't used drugs for 25 years. I take that as a "Yes."
That same year, Lincoln Chafee was running for the U.S. Senate from Rhode Island and was asked the same question. He gave a more forthright response, admitting that he had sniffed coke while a student at Brown University.
Possession of cocaine, a felony, did not interfere with either politician's Ivy League education. Nor did it stop them from seeking and attaining high public office.
Today, taxpayers cover both men's salaries and health-care costs, and will eventually provide their government pensions. All, apparently, is forgiven.
But when some low-income kid gets convicted of smoking a joint (a misdemeanor), America gathers up its moral indignation and strips him of his federal student loan. This is a sick double standard, and it will continue unless changes are made in the Higher Education Act.
Congress is now reauthorizing the 40-year-old law, which was created to help students pay for college. The aid comes in the form of grants, student loans and work-study programs.
In 1998, Congress added the Drug Provision, which bars students ever convicted of the sale or possession of illegal drugs from participating in the program.
There's an effort in Congress to lessen the Drug Provision's burden on poor and working-class students. But anything less than its total elimination tramples the American ideal of equal opportunity.
As things now stand, police swoop down on some college party and drag off the pot-smoking kids. Come the next semester, rich daddies write the usual checks, and the children of doctors, lawyers and U.S. presidents are back in class. Poor and working-class students go home.
So far, 175,000 young people have lost federal student aid because of the Drug Provision.
The whole War on Drugs is a lesson in class discrimination. "A ton of drugs are taken by middle-class kids," says Tom Angell, a director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "Middle- and upper-class people often don't get caught. And they can afford good lawyers to avoid a conviction in the first place."
A possible case in point is Mitchell Daniels, Republican governor of Indiana. As a student at Princeton, Daniels was charged with the possession not only of marijuana, but also of LSD. He was never actually convicted, but did plead guilty to a disorderly-conduct charge for smoking pot. He paid a fine, and his studies continued.
During the campaign for Indiana governor, Daniels's rival, Democratic incumbent Joe Kernan, admitted to smoking pot while in his 20s. And so it goes.
These examples barely scratch the surface on the histories of illicit drug use by our political leaders.
The "war" is also racist. Seventy-two percent of all drug users are non-Hispanic whites, according to government numbers.
Blacks account for only 13 percent of the population and 15 percent of the illicit-drug users. But they are 57 percent of the inmates doing time in state prisons for drug offenses.
The Drug Provision was the handiwork of Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican. Its intention was to deter young people from taking drugs. In practice, it deters poor people from getting a college education.
Would someone please explain how denying poor kids the money for college is going to save them?
The House version of the revised Higher Education Act leaves the drug question on the financial-aid application, but removes punishment for drug convictions before college.
In other words, high-school students caught smoking pot in a park would no longer have their futures ruined. But that would still happen if a student is convicted while in college and receiving assistance.
In the Senate bill, students would not be grilled about convictions for possessing drugs, either in high school or while getting aid. But they would nevertheless be asked about convictions for selling drugs.
Here's the War on Drugs in action. Without shame, the political elites hunt for ways to make examples of lower-income people for doing what they did.
Given the society-wide use of illegal substances and uneven application of drug laws, singling out poor students for special punishment is, excuse the expression, hypocrisy on speed.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.