Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Group files suit over drug law

Students for Sensible Drug Policy filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education last week, calling the denial of financial aid to students convicted of drug misdemeanors unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on behalf of SSDP against Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, alleging a federal law cutting off financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense violates their rights under the due process clause.

The complaint specifically points to the Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Provision, which denies federal student aid for one year to students convicted of possessing a controlled substance, two years for those twice convicted, and permanently for those with three or more convictions.


"This financial aid ban causes more drug abuse," SSDP Campaigns Director Tom Angell said. "Kicking kids out of school only increases drug abuse in our country. It's senseless, and beyond that, it's unconstitutional. It punishes kids for the same thing twice."

According to the complaint, the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits the denial of educational financial assistance to students convicted of a drug offense. Since drug offenders already receive separate criminal punishment, the lawsuit says, restrictions on financial aid because of the same crime are unconstitutional.

University of Wisconsin junior Nathan Bush, one of three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, said having his financial aid restricted is unfair.

"I had my day in court and I got my fines and now they're going to punish me again next year," Bush, who is ineligible for aid in the next school year, said. "It shouldn't be that way."

UW political science professor Donald Downs called the law "overkill" and said it may constitute double jeopardy in a moral sense. However, he said he does not believe there is a strong constitutional argument to support SSDP's claims.

Though Downs said the addition of a financial aid penalty to a drug conviction does not necessarily constitute double jeopardy as it is outlined in the Fifth Amendment, he criticized the law in other ways, including its inability to allow for discretion.

The lawsuit offers even more criticism.

According to the complaint, "[w]hile any non-drug offender, from a murderer to a shoplifter, can receive financial aid, an individual who is caught with any amount of a controlled substance, including a small amount of marijuana, is automatically denied aid by the federal government."

The lawsuit goes on to say that approximately 35,000 students are denied aid every year because of the HEA Aid Elimination Provision, and that more than 200,000 students in the past six years have had their "educational and professional dreams derailed, if not destroyed," by the provision.

Susan Fischer, director of the financial aid department at UW, said fewer than a dozen students have been denied financial aid in the past five years. She called that a "high number," considering many students with drug-related convictions do not even apply, and those who do apply must self-report their convictions.

Fischer expressed her dislike for financial aid restrictions based on drug convictions, saying she "can't think of a financial aid professional right now who is in favor of the law."

She went on to say the law disproportionately affects lower-income students, as drug offenders from higher-income households are less likely to be hurt by restrictions on financial aid.

Downs further criticized the law, pointing to other inconsistencies.

"Why don't we just do away with financial aid to every student who engages in underage drinking?" he said. "It's something that amounts to a drug, it's illegal — in the end, it's the same."

According to Angell, Congress scaled back the law in February of this year to apply only to students who were convicted of drug offenses while already receiving financial aid.

He called the law alteration a victory, but also noted it is only partial reform and still contains "fundamental problems."

A bill recently passed the Wisconsin state Assembly that would have similar effects on students, as it seeks to deny state financial aid to those convicted of drug offenses while already receiving the aid.

The Wisconsin bill would have to gain Senate approval before being sent to Gov. Jim Doyle for review.

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