The Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) was unsuccessful in its effort to repeal the Aid Elimination Penalty by March 30 when Congress passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA).
The penalty targets students convicted of drug possession offenses.
Currently, federal law revokes federal financial aid such as Pell Grants and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid from students who have any drug related offences while receiving aid.
Over 200,000 students are currently denied financial aid based on drug charges, according to SSDP. SSDP Outreach Coordinator Spacia Cosner said the organization feels the war on drugs is failing, and the policy unfairly penalizes students.
“Students with non-felony drug convictions shouldn’t be banned from financial aid,” Cosner said. “These students need access to higher education and deserve an education as much, if not more, than others.”
The House of Representatives voted on SAFRA, part of the health care reconciliation bill, while it still contained the amendments to the drug policy proposed by SSDP. Due to the reconciliation process, however, amendments that directly change policy require a 60 percent majority vote in order to pass into law. The proposed amendment did not receive a majority vote.
“Right now we’re just trying to arrest and jail our way out of the problem and that’s the wrong way to deal with those kinds of issues,” said SSDP Associate Director Jon Perri, who worked as a substance abuse counselor before coming to SSDP in 2005. “If we’re serious about tackling the problem, we want those people to be in school rather than on the street buying drugs. The drug war as it is doesn’t deter drug use, but it does keep people out of school.”
Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Intervention Coordinator Stephanie Lake helps UC Davis students find treatment programs for drug and alcohol problems.
“I love seeing students change,” Lake said. “I believe that everyone is entitled to a second chance and I encourage students who face situations where they are denied aid to lobby Congress and get the law changed.”
Lake saw a total of 225 students last year – 116 for alcohol problems and 49 for marijuana. According to Lake, the most common illegal drug problems involve marijuana and oxycodone.
“Drugs need to be a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” Cosner said. “The war on drugs is an unwinnable war and we need alternative policies for dealing with drug use and abuse.”
Cosner joined SSDP after she was arrested her freshman year at the University of Maryland for possession of less than a gram of marijuana.
“Being arrested and being told that you are a criminal and a druggie definitely affects your ability to focus in school when what you really need to do is focus on just not getting kicked out,” Cosner said. “People who don’t know anyone affected assume that the users are drug addicts and a menace to society, but in fact drug use is very common among all ages.”
SSDP had a victory in 2007, when they successfully lobbied for the Aid Elimination Penalty to be non-retroactive, allowing students with drug offences in high school to continue receiving federal financial aid in college.
Perri suggested drugs ought to be regulated rather than banned in order to encourage responsible drug use.
“Responsible drug use, the same as for alcohol, involves rules for how to use the drugs and standards for behavior,” Perri said. “Right now it’s easier for younger students to buy marijuana in school than it is for them to buy alcohol. A liquor store clerk is unlikely to sell you alcohol if you’re under 21 but a drug dealer doesn’t card. It makes more sense to have regulation.”
Cosner said SSDP intentionally does not have a specific set of demands when it comes to drug policy so as to keep options open.
“There’s a lot of work and change that we can affect,” Cosner said. “I want people like myself to know that they’re not alone and that there are others out there who agree with them and are willing to fight against the drug war.”
JANE TEIXEIRA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.