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February 10, 2005 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Drug-War Follies

By Debra J Saunders

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

HERE'S ANOTHER example of how America's war on drugs has devolved into a war on people.

In 1998, Congress passed an amendment in the Higher Education Act to deny federal financial aid to college students convicted for possession or sale of illegal drugs. In America, you can be convicted for rape, murder or drunk driving and still qualify for federal aid-as long as you didn't smoke pot.

The measure isn't as harsh as it first sounds. Convictions before age 18 don't apply. The ineligibility period lasts for one year for a first- possession offense and two years for a first-dealing offense, but is "indefinite" for repeat offenders. Even then, would-be students can have the ban lifted by completing drug rehabilitation and passing two drug tests.

Despite that, it's still a bad idea.

It's so bad that U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has suggested that students sue the government if they are denied aid for long-ago convictions. Souder's aides blame "the Clinton administration's misinterpretation" of the law. They say the law was never meant to apply to offenses committed before entering college. Souder aide Martin Green explained that the congressman's evangelical Christian beliefs reject punishing people for old wrongs they have addressed.

In that spirit, Souder has tried repeatedly to change the amendment so that it only applied to arrests of current students. But, you see, in Washington, it is easier to pass a bad law than to fix one.

Better to junk the whole thing anyway, says Marisa Garcia, who in 2000 discovered she couldn't qualify for student aid because of an arrest for possession of marijuana pipe. Now a junior at Cal State Fullerton majoring in sociology, Garcia was able to stay in school with the help of her mother, and she now qualifies for federal financial aid. But her experience with the law was not positive.

Souder's staff says the ban is a deterrent to drug use. No way, responded Garcia. She didn't know about the ban before her arrest. If the law is a deterrent, it is a deterrent to going to college. A congressional advisory committee agrees, as a report released last month noted that drug questions "can deter some students from filing for financial aid."

Garcia also doesn't believe the government should punish her twice for one crime. "I had already paid my fine. I have a misdemeanor on my record," said Garcia. If you commit other crimes, "you get punished once."

Souder's camp really thinks the ban is a deterrent and not too harsh, because students can attend drug rehab. (Garcia said rehab costs more than tuition.) Green said the ban prevents those who would "squander taxpayer dollars" -- adding, "These are not going to be your best students."

I don't know that Green is right about that. In my college years, there was no shortage of students who, despite their drug use, had high GPAs. Indiana's new Republican governor, former Bush budget director Mitch Daniels, was convicted for using marijuana in college and it's pretty clear he learned something at Princeton.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has led the fight to repeal the Souder amendment, supported by Students for Sensible Drug Policy. I wish them luck and GOP support.

I agree with Souder that lawbreakers do not have an automatic right to federal financial aid, although the government may be committing double jeopardy by punishing convicts twice for one offense.

To the charge that Souder is soft on other crimes, his staff responds that he is willing to expand the offense list. Still, when Souder had his shot at legislation, he targeted drug users and dealers instead of violent or career criminals.

My theory on the drug war is that it is popular largely because parents will support draconian sentences for other people's children (bad kids) in order to protect their own children (good kids) from doing what the bad kids do. It doesn't occur to these parents that their kids could be on the punishment end. They think they're on the side of law and order.

Not everyone with a badge agrees. John W. Perry was a New York police officer, who publicly protested drug-war excesses. He was signing his resignation papers on Sept. 11 when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He grabbed back his badge and gun, rushed to action and died in the service of others.

Opponents of the Souder amendment set up a scholarship fund in Perry's name for students who couldn't get student aid because of the Souder legislation. Over the phone Wednesday, Perry's mother, Pat, talked about her son. He was a "health nut," Pat said, who didn't use drugs, but "had sympathy for people who weren't as strong as he was." As a police officer, he saw the excesses of the drug war, said Pat, "and he didn't think it was fair."

And it isn't.


©2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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