The success of Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” has turned the spotlight on one of today’s most important and ignored issues. The film conveys the U.S. government’s futile effort to eradicate drugs from the cultural landscape. And now, the Drug War has hit college campuses in the form of the Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision of 1998.
The repressive ideology behind the War on Drugs will cost American taxpayers over $19 billion next year under President Bush’s budget, with half the budget benefiting treatment programs and the rest going to a law enforcement arsenal that includes the FBI, CIA, DEA, Army, Navy and every local and state police force in the country. What has this massive defense strategy resulted in in the past? Well, today drugs are just as prevalent and available to the American public as ever, and we boast the second-highest prison population in the world with over 160,000 federal prisoners, half of whom are non-violent drug offenders. The most common illegal drug for which Americans are arrested for using is marijuana: 704,812 people were arrested in 1999 alone. 88 percent of those arrests were for simple possession, yet President Clinton, who was responsible for this period of incarceration, said in his last Rolling Stone, “I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places and should be.”
The hypocrisy continues as a powdered-nosed President Bush steps to the helm and calls his past substance use a youthful mistake. Well, those youthful mistakes can now stifle the opportunity for thousands of would-be students who are seeking federal financial aid to attend college. The HEA was created 30 years ago to provide educational opportunities for youth who cannot afford college without assistance. In 1998, Mark Souder (D-IN) spearheaded a provision to the HEA that denies federal financial aid to students who reveal any drug convictions on their applications forms. One conviction for possession makes you ineligible for a year, two convictions makes you ineligible for two years, and three makes you ineligible indefinitely.
The HEA drug provision punishes those who have already been punished by our criminal justice system by restricting their access to educational opportunities that are vital for their future. Our prison system is already responsible for stigmatizing the thousands of people every year whose criminal record becomes a blockade to future employment. To this end, denying a youth the right to education is counterproductive.
By examining the application of our current drug laws, we can see who will be affected by the HEA drug provision and for whom it will be inconsequential. According to the Sentencing Project, African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the total population in our country and 13 percent of all drug users, but they account for two-thirds of all convicted drug offenders. In New York state, almost 95 percent of those in prison for drug-related reasons are people of color. On any given day, one out of every three black males between the ages of 18 and 29 is incarcerated, on probation, on parole or under warrant for arrest. For Hispanics this number is one out of six; for whites it is one out of 20. Does this mean that blacks and Hispanics constitute the majority of drug users in our country? No. On the contrary, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Use, whites are the most prominent substance users.
The drug provision also discriminates along class lines. Low-income students convicted of drug offenses are unfairly subjected to scrutiny not applied to people of more privileged backgrounds. How does the act help the overall mobility of low-income households if their children are denied education for making the same mistakes as their white upper-middle-class counterparts?
This act is an attack on prospects for social equality because it places a standard of accepted behavior only working class families. Upper-middle-class white drug users are already privileged because they are not subject to racial profiling and can afford good representation if they ever do go to court. Compare the fate of the daughter of Michael Douglas’ character in “Traffic” with the real life case of Marisa Garcia. The former is a young, white, affluent drug user whose actions have little consequence on her college prospects because of her family’s economic status. Marisa, a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton, was deemed ineligible for student aid for possessing marijuana (her penalty was a $415 fine). She and her mother had been counting heavily on the loan. Marisa was only able to stay in college by upping her work hours at a local flower shop to 30 a week. Her mother also had to take out a loan against their house.
According to the Department of Education, over 8,600 students were declared ineligible for federal aid during the 2000-2001 school year after having revealed drug convictions on their Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA). Also, more than 836,000 applicants left the question blank either out of confusion or to protect themselves. The Clinton administration found ways to ignore the law, but in the past week, The Wall Street Journal and other press outlets reported that President Bush and the Department of Education will enforce the law vigorously next year. This year, they estimate that 22,000 applicants revealed a drug conviction and that an additional 10,000 left the question blank. With one-third of the applicants processed this year, close to 90,000 people are going to be affected by this provision.
Supporters of the drug provision argue that federal financial aid is a “privilege, not a right.” However, the distribution of federal aid is a need-based policy to help would-be students like Marisa. The drug question is the only one on the FAFSA form that does not concern the needs of a particular applicant. And the “privilege” of federal aid is still available to anyone who has been convicted of rape, murder, burglary or any other criminal punishable offense. This act is simply part of a “tough on drugs” rhetoric that has been with us since the “Just Say No” campaign of our youth. The act does not curb the use of the most abused substance on college campuses: alcohol. Even though alcohol is illegal for those under 21, no one has seriously proposed denying federal aid to those offenders.
In response to the HEA drug provision a movement has risen on over 60 college campuses across the country. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is a national organization founded by students on the joint desire to have this morally invasive act repealed. As of today, almost all of the student governments at these institutions, including Yale University, Howard University, UC-Berkeley and Amherst have voted on a resolution to back Barney Frank’s (D-MA) bill, H.R. 786, which would repeal the drug provision. I encourage you all to visit www.raiseyourvoice.com to voice your disagreement with this policy to your respective representatives. Most importantly, I urge you to take notice of how the War on Drugs and this recent assault on education has served to restrict the equality of those who are already marginalized in our society. It must end, and we need to stop it.
Andrew Epstein ’02E runs the Amherst chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.