Advocacy group sues Dept. of Ed. over drug provision

By Marc Larocque

A non-profit advocacy group, best known for fighting a provision that denies federal aid for students with drug convictions, is suing the Department of Education for withholding a state-by-state breakdown of the 175,000 students being stripped of financial aid due to drug convictions.

Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Jan. 26 against the U.S. Department of Education for their refusal to grant the group a waiver on the $4,124 fee for the information.

Under a provision in the Higher Education Act, enacted in 1998 but not enforced until 2000, students are denied access to federal aid in the form of loans, grants and work-study if they have federal or state drug convictions.

Students cannot be denied aid if they were juveniles when convicted. Dropped convictions or convictions out of a certain time frame also do not count. Offenders can regain eligibility by completing a satisfactory drug rehabilitation program.

SSDP states in the suit that since the request for information serves the public good, the fee for providing the information should be waived.

“Under the Freedom of Information Act, the fee should be waived if it is in the public interest,” said Adina Rosenbaum, attorney for SSDP. “The public interest in the disclosure of the records clearly outweighs SSDP’s nonexistent commercial interest in the information.”

However, Chad Colby, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the group’s request was commercially motivated, and did not serve the public.

“The department refused to grant the fee waiver because this organization failed to demonstrate that its request was in the public interest by contributing to public understanding of the government,” Colby said.

SSDP contends the information would give the public a sense of where the Higher Education Act provision has the deepest impact and how it affects people in their own states.

The group states that millions of students who have bought, sold, possessed or used drugs and have not been convicted are eligible for federal aid. SSPD also claims only students answering honestly on federal aid applications are being punished under this law.

“There is no centralized data base of folks who have drug convictions at the department,” said Tom Angell, campaign director for SSDP. “To our knowledge, there is no way that students who lie on the application can be caught doing so.”

Andoni Chaniotakis, a freshman business major, said marijuana use is so widespread the government should not punish its use so harshly.

“The government needs to reevaluate its stance,” Chaniotakis said. “A punishment of lower-paying jobs and lower social status for life, for something more than 10 percent of the population does regularly is unjust.”

Jen Huot, a sophomore physical therapy major, said although she does not do drugs, she believes losing education funding is excessive.

“I have friends that do drugs and they have financial aid and they are smart people,” Huot said. “Just because you do drugs doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a good education.”

Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, and 38 co-sponsors reintroduced a bill last week to revoke the Higher Education Drug Provision.

SSDP has successfully lobbied for several changes to the act in the past. Congress recently amended the law so that students only lose their aid if they are convicted of drug-related offenses while receiving aid. Also, after a student’s first conviction, they now lose financial aid for one year; after their second conviction for two years, and for any additional convictions after that they lose all aid indefinitely. Previously, students lost all federal aid indefinitely after the first offense.

Although Angell said these improvements are a step forward for SSPD, there is more to be done.

“It’s a 10 percent solution to 100 percent flawed,” he said.

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