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By Joseph Bui, guest columnist
The House is expected to pass a bill that ends a policy barring students convicted of possessing illegal drugs from receiving federal financial aid in addition to to serving their court-mandated sentence.
In the status quo, students who violate drug possession laws cannot receive federal aid for one year after a first offense, two years after a second offense and permanently after three offenses. Those convicted of selling are barred for two years for first offenses and forever for second offenses.
As can be expected, this knee-jerk response from the Republican Party, turned into the party of “no” after the 2008 election, is that of stiff resistance. Republicans in the House have unanimously opposed the bill so far.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the original author of the law in 1998, is quick to argue we have laws and consequences in this country, something students from all demographic backgrounds certainly understand.
Actually, this is exactly what he’s banking on. As cited by the Miami Herald, Soulder sees the law as a deterrent because “a student who knows that his financial aid could be suspended if he’s convicted of a drug crime will be less likely to use or deal drugs in the first place.”
Souder’s logic doesn’t follow though. Firstly, there are already consequences for violating drug laws which provide more than enough of a deterrent effect. Drug violation sentencing can include expensive fines, time in the prison and mandatory rehab programs.
Secondly, Souder’s logic completely ignores that targeting student aid could actually be harmful as a deterrent effect – particularly after the first violation. Law Professor Mari Matsuda writes in a piece discussing the racial, class and gender biases in the law that “the scariest thing in the world to see, the corrections officers, police officers and prosecutors tell us, is the person who does not care, who fears no consequences, who puts no value on his or her life or any other person. We have to give our citizens a reason to care.”
Making students automatically ineligible for student aid gives them one less reason to drop a dangerous habit and change their lives around.
But arguably more problematic than the entire deterrence debate is the issue of equal treatment under the law.
The universal application of the law has been used as a mask for how discriminatory it is. Everyone found in violation of drug possession laws would be barred from receiving federal financial aid, but who does that really impact?
The Paris Hiltons of the world aren’t exactly going to need federal financial aid to begin with. Combine that with the ability to buy the best representation around and current drug laws that disproportionately target the illegal drugs low income folks are more likely to use, and voila, this drug policy becomes completely meaningless to the wealthy.
On the other hand, under the status quo, if you’re like most Americans and can’t afford dishing out the money for a high-powered lawyer, let alone the more than $40,000 per year price tag that many colleges charge, then you’re out of luck. You lost your right to social mobility through higher education, regardless of any of your academic credentials, because you were carrying an illegal substance that you may or may not have actually used.
It’s tempting to think of America as this country that is beyond discrimination, especially in the aftermath of last year’s historic election. That ideal doesn’t match the reality though. The efforts to change this policy show us that we’re making progress. The stiff resistance to change remind us that there’s still a long way to go.
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