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High and dry

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

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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.

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