High and dry 

Get busted and you could lose your school loans faster than you can say 'Woody Harrelson'

Pop quiz time: Say it's a week into the fall semester, you're driving some friends around one night and you've had a few beers -- OK, quite a few -- and, oh yeah, say your dad isn't director of the CIA. Drunk driving is not cool, of course, and you end up getting busted and plead nolo contendre (that means, like, guilty) to DUI, attempting to elude police, several moving violations, reckless endangerment, drunk and disorderly and possession of a few pot seeds the cops found under the driver's seat of your Duster.

The question is, even if you draw only probation as a first offender, which of those convictions can derail your hope of going to school this year? Bingo -- the seeds.

And even if you added the fact that you mowed down an old lady and got tagged with vehicular homicide, the answer would be the same.

This year, tens of thousands of college and grad students across the country are expected to lose federal financial aid not because they killed anybody or spied for foreign governments, but because they got caught with a joint or were nailed for some other minor drug offense.

Many don't even know it yet because they're still trying to work their way through the application process. Others who got funding last year by dodging the issue of prior convictions are realizing that this year, Uncle Sam is playing hardball.

Until now, college students in Georgia have only had to worry about felony drug convictions, which would cost them their HOPE scholarships.

But beginning this school year, the U.S. Department of Education is semi-seriously enforcing a 2-year-old federal law that cuts off federal financial aid to students convicted of any drug offense, even a misdemeanor possession charge.

Or, rather, it cuts off aid to those who answer "yes" to Question 35 on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is flagged with an eye-catching warning that commands: "Do not leave question 35 blank." This creates a moral dilemma for many applicants for whom financial aid is critical, but more about that later.

The "drug-free student aid" measure -- the brainchild of Congressman Mark Souder, R-Ind. -- was actually passed in 1998 as an amendment to the LBJ-era Higher Education Act, but didn't go into effect until last year. Students first encountered it in the form of a new question on the student aid application that asked whether they had "never been convicted" a drug offense. Huh? You didn't have to be a burnout to be puzzled by the backward phrasing.

More than 280,000 applicants -- out of a total of 10 million annually -- left the box blank, creating a minor crisis for the DOE. The department simply wasn't prepared to contact more than a quarter- million students to check if they were convicted stoners, so it decided to give them a pass and process the incomplete applications anyway.

Enforcement of the new rule was limited to the suckers, er, students who had responded that, why, yes, now that you mention it, I do have a criminal drug record. About 9,100 applicants who answered "yes" lost all or part of their student aid in 2000.

But that was last year, during an administration headed by a skirt-chaser who admits he partied but didn't inhale. Now, it's the Bush II administration, headed by an ex-lush who refuses to reveal what he may have inhaled, swallowed or snorted.

"It looks like about 35,000 students will have their aid cut because they have a drug conviction or because they didn't answer the question" this year, says Steven Silverman, campus coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Reform Coordination Network, popularly known as DRCNet.

For the 2001 federal aid application, the DOE debugged the drug question to ask if students had "ever been convicted" of a drug offense and added the prominent directive to fill in the box. Those who leave the question blank this go-around will receive the officious "Worksheet for Question 35," which asks for dates and details about possible convictions.

The fact that the crackdown accompanied George W. Bush's entry into office is purely coincidental timing, says a DOE spokesperson.

Much like a 1040-EZ, the completed Q35 worksheet tells the student if he can expect to see any money from the government that year. But if you realize you're ineligible for aid, why would you even spend the postage to return the worksheet? asks Shawn Heller, national director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, also in D.C.

Reforming the Higher Education Act to remove or modify the "drug-free student aid" provision is his group's top priority, he says.

To be blunt, however, critics of the new law face the chronic challenge of being taken seriously by lawmakers concerned about being weeded out by a conservative voting bloc that opposes potentially pro-drug measures of any kind, Bud.

See what we mean? It's difficult to build mainstream support for your cause when everyone your father's age assumes your hemp-wearin' ass is just looking for an excuse to get baked.

Russell Virgilio has encountered this mentality first-hand. Virgilio is a 24-year-old Georgia Tech senior and tireless campus activist for a litany of causes that includes human rights, free speech and world hunger (that's hunger, not the munchies, smart guy).

After attending a drug-policy reform conference in Albuquerque, N.M., this spring, Virgilio decided to form a Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter at Tech. He's filed the paperwork and says he has a dozen eager members already lined up.

As his first act to raise awareness of the issue, he stood outside last month's sold-out Radiohead concert at Stone Mountain Park holding a banner that read: "Which of these crimes will deny you federal financial aid? 1) Arson 2) Armed robbery 3) Murder 4) Rape 5) Smoking pot" -- with No. 5 circled.

"One cop walked by and told me, 'If you kill your brain cells smoking dope, you don't deserve to have an education,'" Virgilio says.

"By changing small things like the Higher Education Act, we can alter the perception that demonizes drug users as worthless drains on society," he says.

Part of the problem with Question 35 is that it isn't snaring only the heads of the class.

Silverman and Heller predict that most of the students who end up losing their aid this year will have been guilty simply of failing to return a completed application, either due to late-teenage apathy or confusion over how to answer Question 35.

David Bledsoe, acting director of the financial aid office at Georgia State University, which receives more than 30,000 applications each year, says Question 35 "is a nightmare to us because of kids who have left it blank."

Although federal aid applications go straight to Washington, the DOE alerts schools when a prospective student has not completed the paperwork. While the smallest colleges can contact students individually to help them through the process, that isn't a remote possibility at a school the size of GSU. The university sends a follow-up letter warning that the student has to get right with the feds, but generally, kids are left to figure out the Q35 worksheet on their own.

"I'm not sure these young people totally understand the difference between being arrested and convicted," Bledsoe explains. "They may have been busted, but it never went to court or it didn't make it on their record."

The law itself has a few complications. Students lose their eligibility for aid for one year following the date of a conviction for drug possession. They lose aid for an additional two years following a second possession conviction or a first-time conviction for selling drugs, whether it be a fattie or a Frisco speedball. A three-time loser for possession -- or a repeat seller -- gives up financial aid permanently.

But wait, students who complete an approved drug-rehab program can regain eligibility. The only catch is, most rehab programs have long waiting lists and tend to admit crack addicts before they consider recreational pot-smokers. By the time a student can begin rehab, it's probably time to enroll in the next fall semester anyway.

The eligibility rules for Georgia's HOPE scholarship, while different, are even more complex. Under state law, conviction of a drug felony -- not a misdemeanor -- is required to lose HOPE for the current and following academic terms, explains Alma Bowen, spokesperson for the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers HOPE.

"A drug felony is the only one that disqualifies a student for HOPE," she explains. "If he's convicted of murder, he can still apply for a scholarship -- when he's released from prison."

But a loophole in the wording can lead to other arbitrary penalties. For example, let's say two high school friends, Kevin and Jane, get busted for selling ecstasy at their senior prom. While they're waiting for their individual court appearances, they each enroll in college and apply for HOPE scholarships.

Kevin's court date comes up a week before school starts, he is convicted and loses his HOPE for the fall semester -- but can regain it in the spring.

Jane's court appearance, as determined by court schedules, comes a week into the fall semester. Her felony conviction nixes her chances for HOPE money for that entire school year. Got it?

Charles, a fifth-year senior at Georgia Tech (and a real person who'd rather we not use his last name), has been busted twice. In 1997, he was caught trying to sell pot, but got off with a misdemeanor possession rap, first-offender treatment -- which meant it wouldn't show up on his permanent record if he kept his nose clean -- and five years' probation.

Trouble was, Charles was nabbed again in 1999 for possession of acid and "X," a clear probation violation that boosted that conviction and the earlier one to felony status. Goodbye federal dollars.

Federal student aid and HOPE are somewhat intertwined, at least in the application stage. As long as a student maintains the required 3.0 GPA and files his federal aid paperwork, he doesn't need to re-apply to the state for HOPE because they use similar application forms.

Although Charles says he never sought federal aid, he still had to fill out the paperwork to keep his HOPE scholarship. In 2000, when confronted with the new drug conviction question, he left the box blank with no hassles. When he tried the same move this year, however, the DOE sent him the Q35 worksheet and informed him his application would not be processed if the question weren't answered.

So Charles instead filed the "HOPE alternative application," which asks about felony drug convictions. It was then that his student aid adviser told him that, although he qualified for HOPE this year, he shouldn't have received HOPE money for the 2000 school year because of his most recent conviction and that he may be asked to pay it back.

Just last week, the school gave Charles (and, no doubt, his parents, as well) some good news: He doesn't have to repay the earlier money and he can keep HOPE aid this year. Now he's worried that somehow the bubble will burst.

"I had to go back (to the financial aid office) five times to get my HOPE scholarship back," he says. "I can't imagine I'm the only one at Tech with a felony conviction."

Hmm. Which brings us back to the moral dilemma facing many tokers when filling out their aid applications.

Shawn Heller of Students for Sensible Drug Policy explains, "Students with drug convictions realize if they lie, they'll get their money; if they tell the truth, they'll lose the money, and that's a terrible lesson to be giving people."

Since there's no national database for drug offenders, there's really no practical way to verify a student's "no" to Question 35, says GSU's Bledsoe.

Of course, falsifying a sworn federal document is a felony -- but, paradoxically, not one that would cost you federal aid.

"It's a calculated risk to lie on the application," says Bledsoe. "The whole thing seems to be an exercise in bureaucracy."

Given the remote chance of catching a pothead in such a fib, does the DOE consider punishing people who are honest and who seek to better themselves through higher education an example of compassionate conservatism? Especially considering that poor people and minorities are likely to suffer most from the measure's enforcement?

"We just implement the law; we don't have any leeway," says a DOE spokesperson. Thank you, Sgt. Joe Friday.

The irony is that the law's author, U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, never intended it to apply to people like our fictional Kevin and Jane.

Named one of the four most effective "conservative true believers" in Congress by Congressional Quarterly, Souder nonetheless didn't mean to penalize students who were convicted before they were receiving federal aid. His goal, according to spokeswoman Angela Flood, was simply to reduce the likelihood that federal dollars would be used to buy drugs. He's now trying to amend the law to apply only to students already receiving aid.

And other signs have emerged to indicate that the administration is backing off strict enforcement of the drug-free student aid law. Incoming Drug Enforcement Administration head, Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., told the L.A. Times earlier this month that he opposes denying federal student aid to drug offenders who are trying to "get back to leading useful, productive lives."

Where does the Bush-appointed DOE stand on loosening restrictions? "This is a new administration and we'll take a fresh look at the policies passed by the last administration," the spokeswoman says.

Oh, brother. In the meantime, just don't get caught selling a nickel bag to an impressionable, young stem cell.

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