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About 20,000 students each year are denied Pell Grants and about 30,000 to 40,000 lose out on student loans because of a federal law that denies financial aid to college students who've been convicted of drug crimes, according to a federal study released Tuesday.

The report issued by the Government Accountability Office examined a raft of federal laws that deny various benefits -- including food stamps and some federal housing -- to citizens who have had drug convictions. In 1998, Congress amended the Higher Education Act of 1965 to restrict eligibility for federal financial aid to students who have been convicted of certain drug charges under federal or state laws. 

Supporters of the law argued that the limited pool of federal student aid should not go to drug users. Critics have complained that the law punishes students overly harshly for mistakes they may have made years earlier, and as Congress works to renew the Higher Education Act again this year, legislators in both houses have proposed softening the law so that it applies only to drug convictions that occur while students are in college, a proposal also made by President Bush.

In its report, the GAO estimates that from the 2001-2 to 2003-4 academic years, between 17,000 and 23,000 students a year were denied Pell Grants, worth a total of between $41 million and $54 million, because of drug convictions. During those same years, the agency said, 29,000 to 41,000 students annually would have received student loans except for their convictions, at a total value of between $100 million and $164 million a year. The report suggests but does not make clear that there may be some overlap between the two sets of students, so the exact number affected is uncertain.

The GAO report notes that those figures may understate the number of people affected by the law because they do not account for people who did not apply for federal student aid because they assumed that their drug convictions would deny them aid. 

In response to a question from U.S. Rep. Robert Scott, a Virginia Democrat who requested the GAO study, the agency said that it could not determined "whether the provisions of the Higher Education Act that provide for denial of postsecondary education benefits would affect relatively larger or smaller numbers of minorities." 

The GAO also said in its report that it could not provide "reliable estimates" of how the number of students would be affected by changing the drug provision in the Higher Education Act so that it only applies to convictions once a student is in college. "However," the report says, "we expect that the proposal would lower our estimates for the numbers of students denied benefits because some individuals would regain their eligibility for benefits, and relatively few students enrolled in postsecondary education institutions would be expected to both use drugs and be convicted of drug crimes."

Groups that oppose the drug law welcomed the GAO report and said it showed that a partial repeal of the drug law was not sufficient.

"The GAO states that the more education a person receives, the less likely they are to commit crimes and rely upon public assistance," said Tom Angell, campaigns director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "The HEA drug provision not only hurts determined individuals trying to move on with their lives, it makes our streets less safe and causes an unnecessary drain on taxpayers' pocketbooks. Anything less than full repeal is like slapping a band-aid on a gaping

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