Anti-drug law focuses on poor and minorities

September 9, 2005

An American law that withholds university tuition assistance from students convicted of selling or possessing drugs seems to be affecting poor and non-white students more often than wealthier white ones, writes Jon Marcus in Boston.

Although richer students are unlikely to require the kind of government financial aid that is covered by the law, an investigation by The Washington Post suggests that the law's enforcement is inconsistent.

About 160,500 US students have had their federal financial aid taken away in the seven years since the drug law took effect, according to the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, which is seeking to have the measure repealed.

"These young people, who have already been punished for their offences, are now dropping out of school because they cannot afford the high cost of tuition," the coalition said in a statement. The anti-drug-law group includes student governments at 115 universities.

Some 67 Democrats in Congress, including 50 who originally voted to impose the law, are also pushing for repeal, so far without success. They complain that not even convicted murderers are specifically deprived by law of federal financial aid for universities; only convicted drug users are.

But Republicans have responded by arguing that taxpayers should not subsidise drug users' educations.

The Washington Post contrasted two students, one at Princeton University and one at a small polytechnic university, who were caught using drugs, including marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms. The polytechnic student lost his government financial aid and was suspended, despite an unblemished academic record, while the Princeton undergraduate was unaffected.

"The law discriminates against minority and low-income students," said Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, who has introduced the Removing Impediments to Students' Education Act to repeal the law.

"I don't condone illegal drug use, but preventing students with minor convictions from being able to pursue an education is counterproductive and excessive," he said.

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