Higher Learning

Campus drug wars


At a recent drug legalization rally at the University of California at Los Angeles, defiant students smoked joints on the grass. Meanwhile, sober administrators circulated yellow flyers warning that drug convictions are grounds for denial of federal financial aid.

Not if activist students have their way. The law in question—an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1998 that took effect in July 2000—is under grassroots attack on campuses across America. Aside from raising awareness and lobbying Congress to strike down the provision, a handful of activists have also convinced their schools to set aside money in case a prospective student is denied aid under the provision.

"It's antithetical to deny people education if we seek to make them responsible and contributing adults," says Aaron Marcus, one of two Hampshire College students who in 1999 spearheaded a successful effort to set aside $10,000 from the university's annual budget, creating the first fund of its kind.

At least three other schools have established such funds. These include the private institutions Yale University (which announced its fund in April) and Swarthmore College as well as Western Washington University, a state school in Bellingham where the student association raised $750 by selling ads in a discount coupon book. "There's no taxpayer or private donor money in it," the association's president explained in a press release.

Marcus, now a law student at the University of Minnesota, is on the board of an organization called Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), designed to promote "open, honest, and rational discussion of alternatives to our nation's drug problem," he says. The student governments of 67 colleges and universities across the country have signed SSDP's resolution asking Congress to repeal the aid provision. The group has an online petition at www.raiseyourvoice.com.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), along with 23 co-sponsors, has drafted a bill to overturn the law. "The authorities previously had the discretion to bar aid to people based on the severity of their crime and whether they are taking steps to rehabilitate themselves," Frank said at a 2001 press conference. "My bill would simply restore that discretion."