A $4,000 Fine for Opposing the War on Drugs


Today Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education for what looks like a blatantly political response to the organization's request for federal financial aid data. In 2004 SSDP, which since its inception has opposed the denial of financial aid to college students who have been convicted of drug offenses, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Education Department for a state-by-state breakdown of how many students are affected by that policy. After jerking SSDP around for a year, the department announced that it could have the data for $4,124.19–a significant sum for a nonprofit group that runs on a shoestring budget. Such fees are supposed to be waived when releasing the information is predominantly in the public interest rather than the applicant's private commercial interest. But despite the ongoing debate about financial aid for convicted drug offenders, the department's chief FOIA officer, Mitchell Clark, decided there was no real public interest at stake. Furthermore, said Clark in a letter dated September 20, 2005, "review of the contents of SSDP's website, www.ssdp.org, and the materials submitted in connection with your fee waiver request [newspaper clippings about SSDP], reveal that the principal goal of your organization is 'to end the war on drugs.'" Clark concluded that "SSDP's campaign could directly benefit those who would profit from the deregulation or legalization of drugs."

Apparently Clark imagines that after marijuana is legalized, pro-reform organizations like SSDP will make a fortune selling it, despite their nonprofit status and lack of expertise in the mass production and marketing of dried psychoactive herbs. If the FOIA request had come from Philip Morris or R.J. Reynolds, Clark's reasoning would make a little more sense, although even then it would be hard to see the connection between letting students with drug offenses on their records get financial aid and repealing the Controlled Substances Act. If only it were that simple.