After Marisa Garcia was busted for possessing a pipe with marijuana residue, she pleaded guilty, paid a $415 fine and thought she had paid her debt to society.
She was wrong: When she applied for federal financial aid to attend Cal State Fullerton, she learned she was ineligible because of the misdemeanor conviction.
"I was thinking I made this horrible mistake which is going to ruin my access to education," said Garcia, 25, of Santa Fe Springs. The sociology major's mother is refinancing her home mortgage to help pay Garcia's fees . "You've already been punished and now you get punished twice ... and I don't think that punishment is benefiting anyone," Garcia said.
She is among hundreds of thousands of students denied federal student aid or who didn't apply for it because drug convictions made them ineligible under a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act intended to deter student drug use.
The huge number of denials has sparked a backlash by students, educators and civil libertarians who are seeking to repeal the drug-conviction provision through Congress and the courts.
"Students are absolutely outraged that our access to education is being lost as collateral damage in the drug war," said Tom Angell of the Washington, D.C.-based Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which has lobbied Congress to repeal the measure and is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education.
Backers of the law counter that the federal government has the right to set standards for recipients of its aid money. Similar restrictions apply to federally subsidized housing and welfare.
"People 18 to 22 should be somewhat smart enough to know how lucky they are to get scholarship money. It's not an entitlement," said Sue Thau, a public policy consultant for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America in Alexandria, Va. "At some point as a society, we do need to hold people responsible for their decisions."
Nearly two-thirds of undergraduates in 2003-04 received government or private aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This year, the federal government expects to give out $82 billion in grants, loans and other assistance to more than 10 million students.
Under the Higher Education Act, students with any drug conviction occurring after 18 are denied federal aid, such as Pell grants and Stafford loans, for at least a year. Students with three drug-use convictions or two drug-sale convictions are permanently ineligible. Offenders can regain eligibility by completing certain drug-treatment programs, though critics say the costs are often prohibitive.
A drug conviction is the only crime that triggers a denial in student aid.
"Murderers and rapists are eligible to receive aid, but a student caught with a single marijuana cigarette is automatically denied," Angell said.
Since 2000, when the law took effect, more than 189,000 students have been deemed ineligible because they admitted to a conviction or refused to provide information on aid applications, according to U.S. Department of Education data obtained by Angell's organization.
An unknown number, including Garcia, did not file an application, knowing their convictions would make them ineligible. Garcia, as a first-time offender, was denied aid for a year.
California, the most populous state, has had the highest number of drug-conviction denials -- 31,830 out of 8.8 million applicants.
California also has a disproportionately high rate -- one in every 278 applicants, 44% higher than the national average.
The drug-conviction provision was created by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who saw it as a deterrent to drug use.
"Drug use and drug dealing are a pervasive and real problem on our college campuses," said Martin Green, Souder's spokesman. "American taxpayers should not be subsidizing the educations of convicted drug dealers or drug users."
But Souder's intent was not to punish students for acts occurring before they started receiving aid, which is why he backed an effort to limit the law's scope to drug convictions after a student begins receiving aid, Green said. The amendment, approved earlier this year, takes effect in July.
Opponents say that's not good enough and are challenging the law.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation that would eliminate the drug-conviction provision.
Frank said he learned of the issue through meetings with several student-aid officials and was disturbed by its implications, particularly for needy students.
"It's kind of symptomatic of people treating drugs in an excessive, almost histrionic fashion, where drugs are treated worse than murder and rape," Frank said. "Why single drugs out as worse? Why penalize poor people as opposed to rich people?"