For three Midwest college students, a conviction on a minor drug offense may lead to a landmark legal debate with implications for student financial aid policy nationwide.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a student organization have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the students to overturn a federal law that revokes Pell Grants and other financial aid to students with drug convictions.
Although the U.S. Congress recently eased some of the restrictions contained in the law, the organizations say the provision is unconstitutional and discriminates against minority and low-income students.
"The only option students have left is to take action in court" says Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a Washington, D.C.-based student group that, along with the ACLU, filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education and its secretary, Margaret Spellings. No court date has been set.
In the suit, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Foundation v. Spellings, the groups claim the denial of financial aid is unconstitutional, since it is in essence a second punishment on top of any legal sanctions imposed by a judge. The suit also contends that the provision violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution by singling out only one group--drug offenders--for unfair treatment.
"While any non-drug offender, from a murderer to a shoplifter, can receive financial aid, an individual who is caught with any amount of a controlled substance, including a small amount of marijuana, is automatically denied aid by the federal government" reads the suit.
According to SSDP, about 200,000 college students have lost access to financial aid, including federally backed loans that have low interest rates, because of the policy. Most of those affected have been low- to moderate-income students, because student drug offenders from more affluent backgrounds can afford tuition without financial aid, the groups say.
Because of discriminatory enforcement of drug laws, the provision in the higher education statute also "disproportionately affects people of color," SSDP says. African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, but more than 62 percent of drug convictions, according to the lawsuit, which cited U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
More than 250 organizations, from the NAACP to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), have favored repealing the provision, which was part of the 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
In a statement responding to the suit, the Education Department said it will "carefully review" the complaint but added that it supports efforts to curb illegal drug use.
"Congress sought to discourage illegal drug use by the nation's youth by passing this restriction on federal student aid in 1998" the statement read. "The department supports Congress' efforts to decrease illegal drug use and protect the health and safety of all our nation's students, from preschool to adult."
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chief sponsor of the 1998 provision, defended the policy, saying revoking student aid for drug offenders "is the least that the taxpayers should expect."
The law denies students aid for varying periods of time depending on the offense. A person guilty of drug possession loses aid for one year for a first offense and two years for a second offense. A third offense brings an indefinite suspension of aid.
For drug sales, a first-time offense brings a two-year ban on financial aid. A second distribution offense carries an indefinite suspension. …