A student advocacy group and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the U.S. Education Department to challenge a federal law that cuts off financial assistance to students who are convicted of a drug offense while receiving aid.
The ACLU and Students for Sensible Drug Policy  filed the class action in a federal court on behalf of the organization, its members, three students whose convictions for marijuana possession resulted in a loss of aid, and other similarly affected students.
The 1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act included a provision that directed the Department of Education to deny federal student aid for one year to applicants who had been convicted of possessing a controlled substance, two years for those convicted twice, and a permanent ban for those convicted three times.
Budget reconciliation legislation enacted in January altered the law so that it applied only to students who were convicted of drug offenses while they were in college and actually receiving financial aid. But the lawsuit asserts that even the amended law violates the double jeopardy clause and the equal protection guarantee of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
“Taking away someone’s financial aid is an unnecessary punishment in these cases, given the punishments the students have already received through the courts,” said Tom Angell, campaigns director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “They’ve been arrested and convicted, possibly even sent to jail. [The law] is counterproductive.”
The lawsuit claims that the so-called “Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Provision” “interferes with the objectives of drug treatment, drug prevention and criminal rehabilitation by denying a higher education … to those convicted.” It seeks an order that would require the Department of Education to stop suspending eligibility for federal financial aid and to retroactively provide aid for the 2006-7 year to students who were denied funds based on how they answered a question on federal financial aid forms about drug convictions.
A spokeswoman at the Department of Education said the department cannot comment on pending litigation.
According to the suit, at least 200,000 students have been denied federal financial aid as a result of past drug convictions under the law since 2000. A U.S. Government Accountability Office study  last year said that 20,000 students a year lose Pell Grants and as many as 40,000 others are denied loans.
“Many of these students are unable to raise sufficient funds to continue their education, forcing them to drop out of school,” the lawsuit says.
Angell said students in his organization have been working to repeal the law for the past eight years. He said that he welcomed Congress’s scaling back of the law, but that there “still is a fundamental problem with the law.”