A series of random events led police to search 24-year-old Santa Fe Springs resident Marisa Garcia’s car the night before her 19th birthday in January 2000, turning up a pipe containing old marijuana residue.
As the police wrote her a ticket and returned the pipe, Garcia never guessed it would place her education in jeopardy.
After paying a fine of $415, Garcia thought she had put this solitary skirmish with the law behind her, and looked forward to starting the semester at CSU Fullerton. When a letter arrived one day informing her that her desperately needed financial aid would be denied due to her drug conviction, she was devastated and confused.
“I thought a drug conviction would (mean something like being a) drug dealer, but not someone like me who just had a pipe,” Garcia said. “I didn’t think I’d lose my education because of something like that.”
Garcia is one of nearly 160,000 students nationwide who have lost their financial aid since the government began widespread enforcement in 2000 of a drug provision contained in the Higher Education Act. The provision requires students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid to disclose drug convictions for possession or distribution of narcotics.
Penalties range from a one-or two-year suspension of aid, pending completion of a suitable drug rehabilitation program, to complete indefinite disqualification for more than two possession convictions or for more than one distribution conviction. Indefinite ineligibility can occur regardless of when the offenses were committed.
This has led many educators and civil rights organizations to question the fairness of the provision.
“If students have had problems in the past and now they’re trying to move forward with their lives and get an education, why are we trying to prevent that?” said Lili Vidal, associate director of the CSUN Financial Aid Department. “Many of us in the profession have personal problems with the ethics of that question.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has taken issue with the drug question, inferring that it targets minorities who tend to receive the most drug convictions, and are most in need of financial aid.
According to an ACLU press release citing statistics from the Department of Justice, although African Americans make up 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug offenders, they represent more than 62 percent of convictions and more than 70 percent of incarcerations for drug possessions.
Although students with one conviction for possession will only lose eligibility for a year, many students who take a year off from college fail to return. Students who do not wish to wait an entire year may complete a rehabilitation program and undergo two unannounced drug tests.
Garcia found that option to be unfeasible when she discovered all the programs in her area required a six-month stay in a rehabilitation center, and that the cost of such programs far exceeded the price of tuition. She questioned how she would benefit from participating in an intensive rehab meant for people with serious drug dependency, and said she resented being punished for the same crime twice.
“Everyone that is being affected by this law has already been punished,” Garcia said. “They’ve already paid their dues. (The rich) are given a free ticket to do whatever, and people from poor families are being punished because they can’t afford to pay for education on their own.”
Opponents also take issue with targeting students who have committed drug offenses, the majority of which are minor possession convictions.
“People who have murdered, kidnapped, or raped can get financial aid, but the people who have been arrested for drug use couldn’t get financial aid, and so why is that worse than murder?” Vidal said.
In response to these complaints, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) along with 55 other congressional co-sponsors introduced the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education Act into Congress March 10. If approved, the bill would mandate the removal of any questions about drug related convictions on federal financial aid applications.
Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who co-sponsored the original legislation requiring the question on financial aid applications, said the law was intended to apply only to students who received drug convictions after receiving financial aid, in order to curb spending of federal money on drugs.
Souder said the Department of Education mistakenly interpreted the bill to apply to students who received the convictions before applying, as well as after receiving aid, and began denying financial aid to students in 2000.
Frank rejected proposals to amend the drug provision to correspond with its original intent.
“Changing the law to eliminate its coverage for past convictions would obviously help some people,” Frank said. “But it would still leave in place an unfair and counterproductive policy, and I intend to continue pushing for full repeal.”
Some students see nothing wrong with revoking aid from students who receive drug convictions. Clay Schenkel, computer science major at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and current financial aid recipient, said he agrees with the drug provision as Souder originally intended it to be interpreted.
“Students who get convictions while receiving aid should lose it for at least a year, because they’re obviously purchasing the drugs while receiving state (and) federal funding,” Schenkel said. “I don’t think prior convictions should keep them from an education.”
Although nearly 160,000 students have lost their aid since the enforcement of the drug policy began, Chris Mulligan, of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, said the number is most likely higher due to students who are intimidated by the drug question. Many people are not even aware of it until the government revokes their financial aid.
“There’s an untold number of students (who) simply don’t apply, or once they get to the question or get the worksheet, (and) simply give up,” Mulligan said.
Since losing her financial aid, Garcia has become an activist for changing the drug law, and trying to show others just what kind of people have been affected. She joined CHEAR in Washington, D.C., this week to tell her story and garner support for the RISE act.
“I became more aware that the law was flawed, and that it wasn’t really justified for me to have my education denied because of a drug conviction,” Garcia said. “Denying someone access to education isn’t helping anything at all. It’s counterproductive. People who are trying to go back to school and make something better of themselves aren’t allowed to do that. If I don’t speak up, who will?”