The war on drugs, via FAFSA

Since 1998, a lone question tucked away on the government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form has stopped at least 200,000 potential college students from receiving financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That was the year that Congress passed the Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Policy, adding a new FASFA question: "Has the student ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?" Now a movement is growing to eliminate the question altogether.

The Higher Education Act of 1998 is up for reauthorization this year, and its opponents see an opportunity to get rid of the one question that they say is counterproductive in the worst way.

"Kicking people out of school and denying them an education, that’s just going to increase drug abuse," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It’s certainly not going to decrease it." The question originally denied federal aid for college to anyone convicted on a drug offense, including possession.

"The Republican Congress was doing a string of punitive measures," says Piper. "There was a ban on people with drug convictions from getting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. There were some bans on getting public housing. It was part of a larger effort to be punitive and show that you’re tough on drugs, when you’re actually being stupid on drugs."

In 2006, the policy was changed to eliminate the retroactive measure; now anyone convicted of a drug offense while receiving federal aid will lose their aid. A first conviction of drug possession denies a student federal aid for a year. A second conviction drops aid for two years, a third, indefinitely. A first conviction for sales denies aid for two years. A second denies aid indefinitely.

The retroactive measure was repealed after it faced harsh criticism from those who argued that maybe, just maybe, denying folks an education wasn’t the best way to curtail drug use. The actual reason the retroactive measure was repealed is a little hazy.

"Congressman Mark Souder [R-Indiana], who wrote and championed this policy back in 1998, had been claiming for years that the Clinton Administration had been misinterpreting it and that he never meant for people to be punished for things that they did in the past," says Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "We don’t necessarily believe that. We think once he started to see some of the criticism, he took a step or two back."

Piper is a bit more blunt: "He either passes laws, then backtracks and doesn’t want to admit it. Or whoever is writing his legislation is an idiot."

Angell says that with the shift in power from the 2006 elections, there is a much greater chance that the House will finally pass a bill taking out the drug-offense question altogether. In April, SSDP sent a letter to Congress asking it to repeal the policy. It was signed by over 350 national and local organizations, including the American Council on Education and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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