February 24, 2006

New legislation in works for teens and drug use

The next year could see dramatic change in federal drug policy for students, as the Bush administration and Congress are considering legislation that would alter law concerning the use of narcotics by teens.

The extent to which federal financial aid can be withheld for college students who have been convicted of a drug offense has been significantly scaled back in a provision included in the latest budget passed by Congress. The alteration to existing law allows for some students who had previously lost their eligibility for assistance to claim aid.

Previously, a student who had been convicted of a drug offense would lose the ability to apply for federal financial aid for at least a year, even if this offense took place in high school. Critics argued that this additional punishment was unfair for many poor and middle-class students trying to attend college.

Under the new provision, prior convictions during high school no longer completely exclude someone from receiving federal financial aid, although they will still have to explain the circumstances of their conviction on the FAFSA form.

“After years of political posturing and empty promises, Congress has finally helped some students harmed by this misguided policy,” said Kris Krane, executive director of nonprofit advocacy organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy, in a press release earlier this month.

Opponents of the changes argue that this revision will remove an effective deterrent to drug use as high school students who know that a drug conviction could also mean that college is no longer a possibility might be more inclined to stay away from drugs.

Students who are convicted of drug offenses while enrolled in college will still face the potential loss of financial aid. The government has traditionally withheld aid or subsidized loans for one year for a first offense, two years for a second offense, and indefinitely for a third offense.

The likelihood of a student’s being convicted of drug use could increase in the coming years as well, as Bush’s latest budget proposal asks for $15 million to perform random drug tests in schools nationwide. The money will pay for schools to randomly screen students participating in extracurricular activities.

Analysts say the enactment of both laws is likely.

Despite cries of privacy infringement, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that schools were allowed to test middle and high school students. Since then the Bush administration has made random testing a centerpiece of its anti-drug efforts.

John Walters, who heads the White House’s anti-drug effort, told USA Today that the policy has a notable effect on schools that conduct testing.

“You talk to kids who feel safer,” he said. “We are not going to watch kids be victims.”