SEATTLE – When it comes to getting government money for college, students who want Uncle Sam to say yes better "just say no."
The Bush administration is enforcing a 1998 law, often ignored by the Clinton Education Department, which bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for college.
Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., said the policy sends a clear message to young people: "We expect you to crack the books, not sell crack cocaine on the street corner."
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid form asks students whether they have been convicted of selling or possessing drugs while 18 years of age or older. Crimes committed as a minor do not count.
Students who answer yes are denied financial aid for one year if they have been convicted once, two years if they have been convicted twice. Students with three or more drug convictions are permanently barred from receiving federal financial aid for education.
"It's not a particularly harsh policy," Keller said. "It's just a good, common-sense decision to enforce the law that's on the books."
Until recently, the policy was only enforced with students who admitted to drug convictions on their FAFSA forms.
Last year, nearly 10 million students submitted the applications. About 9,000 who answered "yes" to the drug conviction question were denied financial aid for at least part of the year.
However, the Clinton Education Department took no action against more than a quarter of a million students who left the question blank. The new administration's policy is to deny such applications.
Does the new policy keep kids clean or punish pupils with a past? Some vocal critics say there is a double standard when it comes to drug enforcement.
"You can commit rape, murder, arson, lie on your FAFSA form and still receive your federal aid," said Shawn Heller, national director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "But if you have one small drug conviction that only amounted to a ticket, you then are denied your federal financial aid."
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced legislation back in February to repeal the law, citing concerns for people "who may have had difficulties with drugs but are now taking steps to improve their lives by pursuing a higher education."
However, Keller, his colleague from Florida, said he doubts the bill will pass and insisted the current law's "three strikes" policy is more than fair.
"We have a finite amount of resources," Keller said. "Would you rather spend money on someone who's a crack dealer, investing in his education, or some poor kid who wants to try and be a doctor."
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