By Alex Hudson/ Drug Information Center

Depending on who you ask, the United States has been fighting the “War on Drugs” for anywhere from 36 to 127 years. I’m not sure if you have noticed or not, but drugs still exist and people still use them.

Without getting super deep into it, which would take libraries of books (similar to ones I have in my office and which are available for checkout), I’m going to focus this Buzz on the aspects of drug policy that directly effect college students. People usually start giving two cents about something when it affects them or people they know, so maybe this little glimpse into the drug policy world will peak your interest, and you will take the time to explore the far reaching aspects of the laws your government has constructed. Or maybe I’ll just write about them later.

So yeah, back to the subject at hand. U.S. drug policy affects students in a major way; I’m going to let you in on some information that could blow your mind about exactly how this happens.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) was signed into law in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society project. The program was designed specifically to open up access to higher education to people who would otherwise not be able to afford tuition. It created a system of federal loans, grants, and scholarships.

Do you rely on financial aid to pay your way through school? Thank the HEA.

Then in 1998 Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) introduced the Drug Free Student Loan amendment to the HEA. The amendment eliminates the possibility of federal aid money to students who have been convicted of drug related charges, including misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.

The HEA drug provision was originally interpreted to include students who received their convictions prior to being accepted at the university. In 2006 the exclusionary rule was scaled back to apply only to students who received their convictions while currently enrolled in school.

Let me elaborate on the details of this amendment. Drug charges are the only convictions which can cost you those fat financial aid checks. Rape, murder, child molestation? You don’t lose the cash. Get caught with a dime bag of marijuana and say goodbye to your financial aid for at least a year; unless you complete a Department of Education approved rehab program.

It has no provision about the most widely used and abused drug on college campuses, alcohol. And since financial aid already has GPA requirements for eligibility, this provision adversely affects students who are already doing well in school.

In the six years since the amendment has been in effect, nearly 190,000 students have been denied financial aid based on these convictions, according to a report released by the Department of Education to the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy in 2006.
In Washington state alone, more than 4,700 students have lost their aid on the basis of prior convictions. One out of every 300 students is denied financial assistance, ranking the state fourth in the nation for percentage of students without possibility of aid. These numbers of course do not include people who don’t even bother to apply for school or for aid knowing they would be denied.

In the spirit of academia, I’m going to pose some questions about this policy and let you make up your own minds. I report, you decide.

• Do students who break drug laws deserve tax-payer assistance in going to school?

• Based on the socio-economic status of students who rely on financial aid in order to go to college, taking this source of income away effects what groups of people most heavily?

• Is this an effective means of deterring students from using drugs?

• Since this rule only applies to people who have been convicted, in what ways is this punishing students twice for the same behavior?

• Should we expect that access to federal financial aid is a privilege and not a right?
• Is this amendment in the spirit of the original act’s intent of providing access to college to persons who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it?

Western used to provide a $750 scholarship to students who lost their financial aid due to drug convictions. We were one of the first in the nation to do so and this move won the university acclaim in the drug policy reform movement. Then, two years ago, the scholarship was dropped by the AS Board of Directors due to lack of student interest. If you feel strongly about this issue either way, you should do your democratic duty and contact your board and give them your two cents.

Again my darling readers, it is neither my right, role, nor desire to force feed you opinions. We are all here to expand our minds, broaden our ways of knowing and understand the world, and to question our basic assumptions. I urge you all to investigate this further.

In the immortal words of Garrison Keillor, “Be well. Do good work and Keep in Touch.”