Rhode Island has been hit hard by an anti-drug law that bars college students with drug convictions from receiving federal grants and loans, according to US Department of Education statistics. The information, released to settle a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, indicates that only Indiana, California, Oregon, and Washington had a higher percentage of student aid applicants who were denied federal financial aid because of the law.

The Washington, DC-based Students for Sensible Drug Policy, as well as student governments at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, are calling for the law’s repeal. Oddly, however, college financial aid directors in Rhode Island say they know of no one who has been denied aid because of the controversial provision.

Nationwide, 189,065 prospective students have been denied federal financial aid since the anti-drug penalty became effective during the 2000-2001 school year, according to the Education Department. Indiana had the highest percentage of aid applicants affected (0.50 percent ). In Rhode Island, 0.29 percent, or 807 aspiring students, have been denied aid. The national average is 0.25 percent.

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the anti-drug provision asks students on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) if they have “ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs.” Those who answer “yes” are penalized according to the number of offenses. First-time possession draws a one-year suspension from federal aid. A third conviction for possession, or a second one for dealing, brings an indefinite suspension.

The law’s critics include state Representatives Joseph Almeida (D-Providence) and Anastasia Williams (D-Providence). Last year, they sponsored a resolution calling for the law’s repeal, noting that it adds a second round of penalties for those convicted of drug crimes, but does not apply to those convicted of rape, arson, or armed robbery. The resolution never made it out of committee.

In February, however, Congress altered the law. Now, only offenses committed while in college are counted. But SSDP — which wants more — is backing repeal legislation authored by US Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. His counterparts from Rhode Island, Patrick Kennedy and James Langevin, are not among the bill‘s 70 sponsors. SSDP and the American Civil Liberties Union are also challenging the law’s constitutionality, arguing that it constitutes double jeopardy and discriminatory treatment for drug offenders.

Nevertheless, financial aid directors at Brown, URI, and Rhode Island College say they know of no student who has been denied aid by the law. “This has not been an issue for Brown students,” says Michael Bartini, the university’s director of financial aid. Rhode Island College’s director of student financial aid, James Hanbury, suggests that he may not have met any penalized student because students may accept the loss of aid, rather than talk with the financial aid office, after receiving a denial letter from the federal government.

URI’s director of enrollment management, Harry Amaral also cannot cite an instance of the law affecting a Rhode Island student, but if one arose, he says, the university would try to help the student find other financial assistance. “Most financial aid officers,” notes Bartini, “have been opposed to this for a long time.”

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