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Jewish World Review May 1, 2001 / 8 Iyar, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

War on drugs misfires against students -- IN the hit drug movie "Traffic," the drug czar played by Michael Douglas laments a shocking discovery: The war on drugs, he says, "is a war on our nation's most precious resource our children."

At the time, I thought that line was a bit of an exaggeration, some purple prose from a director trying too hard to make a point. Now I'm beginning to wonder whether Douglas' line didn't go far enough.

"War on our children" sounds like a pretty good description of a three-year-old federal law that denies financial aid for a year or more to students convicted of drug crimes, no matter how minor the crime might have been.

Think about it: You can have a record for rape, murder, burglary or child molestation and it won't hurt your chances for a federal student grant or loan. But get caught lighting up a joint during a rock concert and you can kiss that tuition help goodbye for a year or more, depending on the severity of the offense.

Rep. Mark Souder calls it "accountability." He's the Indiana Republican who authored the anti-drug measure as a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act.

"The concept is simple," he told me in a telephone interview. "If you want taxpayer funds, accountability goes with it. Some states do it with driver's licenses. The federal government does it with public housing. I wanted to do it with student loans."

Unfortunately, what he also has done is to punish thousands of applicants twice for what many would call a "youthful indiscretion," to use a phrase made popular by embarrassed politicians.

The law exempts drug offenders who subsequently enrolled in a treatment program. But many applicants found that out too late, even if they could have afforded the treatment.

Now Souder, like Dr. Frankenstein, is deeply troubled by the unintended consequences of his idea. He only intended to penalize students for drug violations committed while they were students, not for their prior offenses.

"I am an evangelical Christian," he said. "I believe in forgiveness. I don't want to punish someone for an offense they committed long ago when they now are trying to improve their lives."

So how did this goof happen? Souder blames the Clinton administration's interpretation of his wording, but you also could blame his wording.

"My bill says aid will be denied to an individual 'student who has been convicted' of any offense under federal or state law," he said. "It says 'student,' not 'applicant.' Why the Clinton administration decided to punish applicants is a mystery to me."

Maybe. But, ah, what a difference a few words make. "Has been convicted" does not stipulate how far back the conviction is supposed to be. Sounds to me like the administration believed the words it read.

Wording also became a confusing problem in the administration's student aid application forms. As a result, the Clinton administration decided not to penalize those who failed to answer the question. About 279,000 applications who left it blank received aid.

Some 9,000 others were denied because they acknowledged having had drug convictions. I guess that's what they get for being candid during a drug war.

The Clinton administration made the wording more explicit for the 2001-2002 school year. It reads, "Do not leave this question blank. Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?"

After consulting with legal counsel, Bush's Education Secretary Rod Paige has decided to treat a blank answer to that question like a "yes," spokesmen say.

So, while Souder blames the Clinton administration for making his bill more ruthless than he intended, the Bush administration has announced an even tougher policy.

Pause now to consider another one of the drug war's ironies. Remember how presidential candidate George W. Bush refused to tell reporters whether he ever used illegal drugs? His refusal to answer the question did not stop him from getting to the White House. It would have stopped him, under his administration's new policy, from getting a student loan.

By last week, with almost half of the expected 10 million applications turned in, about 32,000 people answered "yes" to the drug question, according to an Education Department spokesman. About half of those applications have been approved after applicants filled out an additional drug questionnaire, and most of the rest of the cases are under review.

Souder now is pushing to scale back his legislation's reach so it won't penalize students for prior convictions. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has a better idea. He is reintroducing a bill to repeal Souder's measure altogether.

Unfortunately, a similar try by Frank failed last year. It probably won't get much farther this year. Too many of Washington's politicians run like scared rabbits from the possibility of looking soft on drugs, even when the result would help some ex-offenders to earn a better life.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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