Marijuana leads to loss of financial aid for students

Students convicted of marijuana violations by local police stand to lose federal financial aid

By Natalie Placeck
On October 25, 2007

Students nationwide may find the price of their everyday marijuana joint increasing to three-figures, or however much they are receiving in financial aid.

The Drug Offender Exclusionary Provision of the Higher Education Act can declare students ineligible for financial aid if they have been convicted of possession or sale of a controlled substance. Students are denied aid for one year if they have one conviction, two years if they have two convictions, and indefinitely after the third offense.

The Higher Education Act, signed by President Johnson in 1965, was originally meant to make college more realistic for middle-class and lower income students. The penalty for drug charges wasn't added to the HEA until 1998, and now many find it contradictory to what the law was originally intended to do.

Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an international network of students who aim to fight unjust drug policies, believe that the penalty hurts the middle class and lower-income students because they cannot afford to pay for college without aid, whereas rich students who have their aid revoked have other payment options. The SSDP argues that because of lack of aid students are forced to drop out of school, which only encourages drug use.

"Kicking people out of school and denying them an education, that's just going to increase drug abuse," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Nearly 200,000 students have lost their financial aid under the HEA penalty, which doesn't revoke aid for higher crimes such as rape, murder or robbery. "Everybody makes mistakes," Katrina Watson, a sophomore and University tour guide, said. "Unless they're going to take aid away from everyone caught doing anything illegal, they shouldn't focus on kids caught with pot."

At the University, when students are caught with possession or distribution of marijuana, or even if there is only a strong odor that indicates that the drug was in the room, public safety issues them a summons and reports them to the Dean of Students. The student then has to go to a hearing with the Office of Community Standards, where they determine the sanction based on the student's prior disciplinary record. Sanctions range from warnings and educational seminars for first time offenders, to suspension and expulsion for repeat violations.

In 2006, 146 University students were issued judicial referrals, 123 of them occurring in dorms. Four arrests were made on campus last year for drug related transgressions.

However, Cheryl Betz, assistant dean of students, said that the financial aid office has nothing to do with the dean of students and that any summonses students receive for drugs on campus cannot affect their aid because of the confidentiality agreement. Betz is not allowed to discuss a student's record or transgressions with any other department. "I don't have the right to share that confidential file with anyone, not even their parents," Betz said.

Only students who have been convicted by the Nassau County court system can have their aid revoked.

"It's not fair for other students to be overlooked for aid when the students who receive it use drugs," said sophomore Sara Cauvin.

SSDP celebrated in February 2006 when Congress changed the law so that it only revoked financial aid for those receiving it when convicted. The original law claimed that a drug conviction negated any federal financial aid regardless of whether or not the person was enrolled in school and receiving aid.

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