You’ve used drugs. Or, heaven forbid, you’ve sold drugs. You got caught and convicted. Then, like Saul on the road to Damascus, a beam of light dazzles you and a voice tells you to go straight. You decide you want to go to college. You’re strapped for cash. You fill out the Free Application for Financial Aid. You come to Question 31:
“Has the student ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?”
A help screen for the online question explains: “A federal law suspends federal student aid eligibility for students convicted under federal or state law for possession of or sale of illegal drugs (not including alcohol and tobacco).” If you answer yes, you need to fill out the two-page Worksheet for Question 31 to find out when you might be eligible for financial aid.
In a society that wants to make sure everyone gets the message that drugs (except alcohol and tobacco) are very, very bad, that all makes perfect sense. If you used or pushed and got busted, you’ve got to pay the price. Not just in taking whatever punishment the legal system doles out, but in losing, for at least a while, access to financial aid (including many student loans) that might help you get through school and away from the drug culture (except alcohol and tobacco).
The way our drug laws are enforced, look who gets hurt. Yeah, a few hapless middle-class kids might screw up and find they can’t get aid. But — you wonder if anyone’s done a study — most of the people made ineligible by Question 31 must come from the same slice of America that’s so richly overrepresented in jails from coast to coast.
To be fair, the law behind Question 31 does restore aid eligibility to those who undergo an “acceptable” drug rehab program. An acceptable program administers at least two surprise drug tests. The treatment option is positive; but again, you wonder how this works in practice. How long does it take to find an acceptable program, and in a nation where most of the poor are uninsured, who pays for it?