Drug War promoter Mark Souder, R-Ind., has leveled his legislative guns at the financial aid of hundreds of thousands of college students, but anti-drug war activists nationwide are taking their own potshots and mounting an organized defense.
In a Washington D.C. press conference last week, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced a bill that would repeal Souder’s 1998 drug amendment to the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA). Souder’s amendment cuts off financial aid from students convicted of possession or sale of drugs – from holding a joint to selling crack – for a minimum of one year and up to indefinitely. Souder’s law cut 8,600 college students from financial aid last year, and could potentially affect thousands more this year.
Frank said Souder’s law is racist, classist and makes an unfair target of drug users, while ignoring legitimate societal problems.
“Someone who commits a murder or armed robbery is not automatically barred from financial aid eligibility,” he said during last week’s press conference. “But if you have even one non-violent drug conviction, you can’t get any aid for a year, with longer bans for people with additional convictions.”
Souder’s original law was written broadly. It was not clear that drug convictions had to occur while a student was receiving financial aid, and did not provide the Dept. of Education with information on how to handle the 800,000 students who would initially leave the question blank on the 2000-2001 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Ultimately, last year 270,000 students never answered the question and the Dept. of Education granted their aid. However, the approximately 8,600 students who answered “yes” lost their aid.
Steven Silverman, coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Reform Coalition Network (DRCNet), said Souder’s broadly drafted law penalized honest students, while awarding liars who can easily go undetected amid 10 million yearly FAFSA applications.
“These students are significantly more tragic because, had they done what politicians do by avoiding the question or even lying outright, they would have otherwise been fine. It seems that these students are being punished for being honest and that’s quite a lesson to teach young people.”
According to Angela Flood, Souder’s chief deputy of staff, it was the Clinton administration that should be blamed for the unfair treatment.
“The way the regulations have been promulgated is not in keeping with the intentions,” she said. “The purpose of the law is to bring accountability to the system. If you’re breaking the law and using or selling drugs, you’re not obviously studying or making the most of the education that has been provided partly at taxpayer expense.”
Last year, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., introduced a repeal similar to Frank’s, but the Workforce and Education Committee voted it down 30-16 with six Democrats defecting. Frank is going up against the same Republican-dominated committee this year, and he says the fight will be a difficult one.
“I’m not optimistic with the Republicans continuing to be in control. Obviously, there was a very partisan aspect to the vote last time. We didn’t get all the Democrats, but we got a solid majority of the Democrats and we lost every single Republican. With the Republicans remaining in control, I’m not optimistic,” he said. “On the other hand, if enough students complain to their members of Congress, we may get somewhere. Members of Congress don’t ignore constituents.”
Although Frank is backed by hundreds of student groups across the nation, bipartisan congressional sponsors and college financial aid administrators, the odds are stacked against him. Silverman said the DRCNet and other groups like the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) are targeting schools in districts whose representatives are on the Workforce and Education Committee. Their goal is to get students to voice their opinion on Souder’s law.
“This is something that so many students never could’ve imagined – that this is how the drug war is being fought. They could’ve never imagined that the government would cut educational opportunities for people with any drug conviction, and so students are coming out everywhere.”
SSDP began in 1998 with one D.C. chapter devoted to stopping the excesses of the drug war, and has grown to over 80 chapters nationwide in response to Souder’s law. California chapters include UCLA, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and others.
SSDP Executive Board member Shaun Heller said lobbying for the repeal opens students’ eyes to other aspects of the drug war.
“It springboards them into the greater issue and opens their eyes to what’s going on – the fact that we have almost 500,000 non-violent drug offenders incarcerated. That is more people than the entire prison population of Western Europe has in prison for all offenses,” he said. “You’re punishing people who’ve already been punished, and then you’re going further by taking away someone’s education. This only affects lower and middle-lower income people, because otherwise you’re not eligible for financial aid.”
There is also a racist aspect of Souder’s law, Heller said. “African Americans constitute 13 percent of drug users and 55 percent of drug convictions. So it is quite evident who’s going to be affected most by this provision. And it’s an unprecedented provision. You could rape, murder, commit arson, get out of jail and still be eligible for federal financial aid. This is an issue that students feel hits very close to home and students can easily pick up and say this is absolutely unjust.”
Flood said Souder did not intend to discriminate by race or class, and that there is nothing stopping legislation from applying Souder’s law to non-drug criminals.
“The only group intended to be discriminated against – if you want to use that term – are people who use and sell drugs illegally,” she said. “That’s the bottom line with this. People can get in a tiffy all they want, but this is illegal behavior, the fact that they’re outraged that someone might hold them accountable for illegal behavior is lost on me.”
Judy Hearsum, director for Alcohol and Other Drug Programs at UCSB’s Student Health office, said the #1 drug problem on any college campus in America is alcohol abuse. Alcohol-related citations and arrests in nearby Isla Vista have doubled in the last year to over 1,300, while possession of controlled substances was less than 200, according to current Isla Vista Foot Patrol statistics.
“UCSB isn’t the only case example. Any college campus anywhere in this country is going to have far more alcohol use and abuse problems than they do other drugs,” she said.
Hearsum said national statistics from 1999 showed 70 percent of college students drank within the last 30 days, compared to 22 percent for nicotine, and 13 percent for marijuana; all other illegal drugs were in the single digits. Hearsum said Souder’s drug provisions are not the best way to deal with student drug problems.
“It probably isn’t the most effective way to be dealing with the situation; however, we should have higher standards and maybe penalties for students who are getting in trouble with drugs or alcohol or murder or rape, even if it’s not on campus,” she said.
Isla Vista resident and recent UCSB graduate Angela Lang said she worked with the United Hemp Council while at UCSB, educating students on the usefulness and deliberate suppression of hemp by the U.S. government. Financial aid helped her through school, so did the marijuana she used to stop migraines and pre-menstrual cramps. Lang said four-and-a-quarter years at UCSB solidified her belief that alcoholism poses a much bigger threat to students than illicit drugs.
“I feel that alcohol causes a lot more cultural harm,” she said. “This won’t stop students using drugs. It’s just discriminates by class and race.”
However, Flood maintained that Souder’s legislation could help deter students from drug use.
“Maybe you have a problem, so this is one way to identify students who need treatment, and it’s a deterrent. If you’re receiving student aid and you care at all about your education, and you know that you could lose student aid if you’re convicted of a drug crime, then maybe you’ll be less likely to commit the crime.”
Frank said the Republican-controlled Workforce and Education Committee does not have to vote on his repeal bill. Rather, Souder’s broadly drawn provision needs technical amendments to clarify that only students who are receiving aid at the time of their drug conviction will be cut off. These amendments also mandate answering this year’s FAFSA question #35; applicants who don’t answer will not be processed. The technical amendments died in last year’s Congress and the committee may be forced to vote on them again.
Silverman said the technical amendments might not be necessary if the Bush administration orders the Dept. of Education to withhold aid from students who don’t answer the drug question.
“We’re sort of waiting and seeing what they’re going to do and then responding from that. We really hope that they will continue with how the Clinton administration handled it; that they permitted those who left the question blank to go through, but there’s no way of saying,” Silverman said. “Bush hasn’t spoke out on the subject, but I’m sure he’s going to be much more receptive to the pressure from the Republicans who worked in the 106th Congress on the technical amendments.”
Silverman said that while most students don’t have representatives in the Workforce and Education Committee, contacting their representative to be a co-sponsor could help.
“[Co-sponsoring] will help lend weight to the bill. It shows that more and more legislators are signing onto this and a representative need not be afraid of signing onto this, because it has gone mainstream. This goes beyond partisan politics. This is about educational access. You do not have be concerned about looking soft on drugs because the students understand what this is about.”
As SSDP and other drug law reform organizations gain new college chapters, Silverman said Frank’s repeal would not be the last step to end Souder’s law.
“This was definitely a grenade lobbed at students. We think Mark Souder tried to score political points using students, thinking they’re not politically active and that because they don’t vote as much, he could get political mileage by hurting them. Well, students are not going to sit by idly while politicians use their education opportunities as cannon fodder in their war on drugs.”