A student-led campaign that seeks to overturn a controversial provision in the Higher Education Act of 1998 gained momentum this week as college newspapers from across the nation ran stories, and a Republican congressman who was instrumental in passing the provision responded with faulty statistics and an ad hominem attack against DRCNet in the University of Virginia's newspaper, the Cavalier Daily.
A provision in the HEA, signed into law by President Clinton on October 7, will deny or delay eligibility for federal financial aid for any student convicted of a drug offense, no matter how minor. Students on more than 100 campuses are already participating in a campaign, coordinated by DRCNet, to have the law overturned. Students are seeking the endorsements of their student governments for a resolution calling on the 106th Congress to repeal the provision. Thus far, the resolution has been presented to five student governments and has been endorsed by all five.
The campaign bases its opposition to the new law on four main issues. First, the campaign views the restriction of access to education as a counterproductive approach, given that education is the surest route into the mainstream for students at risk. Next, the law singles out drug offenders -- the vast majority of whom are convicted of non-violent possession offenses -- as the only class of offenders to lose eligibility for financial aid. Third, the law represents an extra-judicial penalty affecting only those students of low to moderate means, as the educational opportunities of wealthier students will be unaffected by the loss of financial aid. Finally, and most perniciously, drug law enforcement is practiced most aggressively against non-whites, making it certain that the law will have a racially discriminatory impact.
Mark Souder, a member of the House Education Committee who was instrumental in the provision's passage, responded to the campaign by submitting an op-ed to the Cavalier Daily that ran on February 25. In it, Souder cites the Department of Justice as the source of statistics indicating that in 1995, "approximately 60% of defendants convicted of drug offenses were white and 38% were black." These figures lead Souder to proclaim, "Gross disparities in conviction rates do not exist."
The truth is that those statistics reflect only federal cases, which account for just 13% of all drug convictions. Overall (state and federal inclusive) more than 55% of those convicted of drug offenses in the United States in 1995 were indeed African American, despite the fact that African Americans comprise only 13% of the population and a proportional percentage of all drug users. The federal statistics cited by Souder are further misleading as they do not separate out Latinos, who comprise more than 35% of those convicted on federal drug charges, and who are overwhelmingly classified as "white" for the particular numbers cited by Souder.
Chris Maj, President of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where the resolution has already been endorsed, told The Week Online, "If Representative Souder intentionally used false statistics to convince college students that the drug war is not a racially discriminatory policy, that is an outrage. If, on the other hand, he is truly unaware of the racial disparities, then that is an indication of just how out of touch with reality many of our elected leaders are."
In addition to statistical manipulation, Rep. Souder took the opportunity to attack the campaign, the reform movement in general and DRCNet specifically in his op-ed. Unwittingly, perhaps, Souder gave some indication of the broad interest in the campaign on college campuses nationally when he wrote:
"There are those organizations, though, who work to create controversy and twist common sense principles in order to advance their own agendas. Take the Drug Reform Coordination Network, for example. My office has received calls from college newspapers from all over the country who have been fed propaganda by this group."
"In the past, these organizations have used the sick and the dying to promote the use of so-called medicinal marijuana in their continual effort to weaken the drug laws. Now they see the opportunity to take advantage of college students who receive financial aid by enlisting them in their doomed campaign. Their latest tactic is to assert that the drug-free student loan provision of the Higher Education Act is racist. Apparently they believe minority college students who receive financial aid are more likely to use and sell drugs."
But Chris Maj had a different interpretation. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon or a member of Congress to look at this issue and realize that something is seriously wrong with our policies. When today's college students were born, the US prison population was one eighth of its current size. That increase, the imprisonment of literally hundreds of thousands of non-violent people, was undertaken in our name, as a way of protecting us from drugs. But there isn't a college student in this country who came from a city or a town where drugs weren't available to kids. We weren't protected and we know it."
"College students aren't as tied to the status quo as older generations are," Maj added. "We're open to new solutions, and, on the whole, we're committed to making sure that those solutions make sense. Keeping people from educating themselves because they use the wrong substances doesn't make sense. Filling prisons with non-violent people because they use the wrong substances, even if their use rises to the level of addiction, doesn't make sense. And any policy with an outcome as racially divisive and discriminatory as ours has, is not going to be very popular with our generation. We're just getting started educating our peers about this, and letting them know that they can make a difference."
DRCNet expects the number of student governments endorsing the resolution to grow substantially over the next month, and is also expecting the campaign to receive the endorsements of national organizations in the next several weeks.
Adam Smith, DRCNet's associate director, is confident that the campaign, far from being "doomed," has real political promise. "One can only surmise that legislators pass laws such as this to look 'tough' to their constituents, while counting on students to simply roll over and accept the fact that they are being used as pawns in a failed drug war strategy. Given the speed at which the campaign is growing, I'd say that there are some legislators who are about to discover that they've made a serious error in judgment."
Learn more about the HEA reform campaign and how to get involved, at http://www.u-net.org.