College students convicted of drug possession may soon get access to federal student loans due to a little-noticed provision in the 181-page Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009.
The bill, which makes major revisions to the student loan system, was introduced by California congressman George Miller, a Democrat. It is expected to pass in the House of Representatives.
The provision would reverse a 1998 amendment that made students convicted of drug-possession ineligible to receive federal funding unless they completed a rehabilitation program and passed two unannounced drug tests. Students convicted of dealing drugs would continue to be prohibited from receiving financial aid.
Advocates on both sides of the issue say it is an important one.
"This bill is an important step in restoring education to our country's youth," said Adam Wolf, staff attorney for the ACLU, which has unsuccessfully fought the current restriction for several years in the courts.
Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said of the current law: "It's an unfair penalty, it's double jeopardy, and it impacts students of color and low income students predominantly. It actually creates more drug abuse, because we know that the best way to prevent drug abuse later on in life is to get a college degree. That opens opportunities for economic advancement later on in life."
But law enforcement groups say the current law is supposed to make students think twice before using drugs.
"[Changing this policy] would remove one more deterrent for people breaking the law. It's not good policy and is something that we would oppose," Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told FOXNews.com.
Others say tax dollars should not be spent to help people who break the law go to college.
"If they want to continue to use drugs they ought to pay for college themselves. Or get off the drugs -- and stay off the drugs -- as a condition for continuing to be supported by the taxpayers," said Dr. Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"It isn't as though these students can't get federal funding back. They have all kinds of opportunities to [get it back] by entering a treatment program."
Over 200,000 students have been denied financial aid because of drug infractions over the last 10 years, according to data from the Department of Justice. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that giving aid to students convicted of drug possession would cost an extra $24 million over the next 10 years.
One of those students who lost her financial aid was Kandice Hawes, who was a freshman at California State University, Fullerton, when she was convicted of marijuana possession in Nevada.
"I was in Las Vegas," she said, "and I had a little more than an ounce [of marijuana], which was a felony at that time.... So I lost my aid.
"I had to take on a full-time job to stay in school, and ever since I've been trying to make it up by taking classes after work. I can't go to school full-time any more," she said.
Hawes said she did not enter a treatment program because of the prohibitive cost -- thousands of dollars, she said.
After her arrest, she said, she founded a chapter of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group. She is currently taking night classes to get a political science degree.
"[Changing this law] would be the best thing that could happen," she said. "Murderers and rapists are still able to get school funds, so people [convicted on] possession of marijuana charges definitely shouldn't get the money taken away."
Pasco agreed that the current law prohibits only drug users from receiving aid -- there are no legal prohibitions for other felons, including murderers and rapists -- but he said that he would prefer to see the law made even stricter.
"If they're looking for consistency, then no lawbreakers should get federal aid. We love consistency, but consistency means that if you break the law there are consequences for your actions," he said.
Duke, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he disagreed with Krane's argument that putting students though college would help get them off of drugs.
"I think eventually most people outgrow their youthful enthusiasm for drugs, but I'm not convinced college is the thing that causes them to outgrow that."
The office of Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who authored the 1998 bill, did not return calls for comment.
Whether the provision will become law mostly depends on the Senate, Krane said.
"It is highly likely that it will pass the full house," he said, adding that an amendment to remove the provision from the bill was killed in committee.
"We have no idea yet whether the Senate bill will include this language, but if it is in the Senate version and it passes both houses, that would be terrific."