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Berkeley students counter federal drug rule

January 26, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Some UC Berkeley students who are denied federal financial aid because of a drug conviction will be eligible for a new scholarship funded by the student government, the organization decided this week. Though the stipends are only $400, supporters say they are a symbolic protest against a law they call unjust.

"It's a very poor way for the government to fight the war on drugs," said David Israel Wasserman, a senior political science major and the senator in the Associated Students who wrote the resolution. "I don't think that the government should find more and more ways to deprive students of a means to an education."

David Murray, chief scientist with the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, called the Berkeley effort "misguided," saying federal aid is a privilege and that the government has an obligation to use whatever means necessary to dissuade young people from using drugs.

"If you are enabling self-destructive behavior by supporting it, condoning it or even paying for it, you're probably not helping the person get the help they need to deal with their disease," he said.

As tuition costs have skyrocketed, students are increasingly relying on financial assistance. Nearly two-thirds of undergraduates in 2003-04 received government or private aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Last year, the federal government gave out $82 billion in grants, loans and other assistance to more than 10 million students.

A drug conviction after a student begins receiving aid is the only crime that cuts off the federal money, a penalty that lasts at least a year. Students with three drug-use convictions or two drug-sale convictions are permanently ineligible. The lesser offenders can regain eligibility by completing drug treatment programs.

Since the law took effect in 2000, more than 189,000 students have been deemed ineligible because they admitted to a conviction or refused to provide the information on aid applications, according to the Education Department. California has a disproportionately high rate: one in every 278 applicants, 44% higher than the national average.

It's unknown how many of Berkeley's 34,000 students the rule has affected, but in the late 1990s, the school was known for having more campus drug arrests than nearly every other four-year institution in the country.

On Wednesday, the Associated Students board voted unanimously to give at least one $400 scholarship per year to a student who loses eligibility for federal aid because of a drug conviction. The recipient must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, perform 20 hours of community service and have the "moral obligation" to contribute to the scholarship program after graduation, "once they find themselves in the financial position to be of assistance to the program."

The money, which can be spent only on college-related expenses, will come from the Associated Students' $1.5-million annual budget. The organization's funding comes from an activities fee students pay.

UC Berkeley officials who could comment on the matter couldn't be reached Thursday.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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