Laws sometimes take on unfortunate lives of their own - particularly vaguely written ones. That has certainly been the case with a law passed in 1998. Its purpose: to keep college students who use or deal in drugs from getting federal loans.
The law is triggered only when a student applying for college aid owns up to any convictions for possessing or selling an illegal drug.
The Clinton administration lightly enforced this law. For a while, it cut off only those honest enough to answer yes. The hundreds of thousands of loan applicants who left that box blank weren't penalized. Later, the administration added a line telling applicants not to leave the space blank.
Enter the Bush administration, which has logically enough decided to assume that a blank answer to that question means yes, and hence a probable denial of aid.
But the logic in all this is slippery at best. The author of the law, Rep. Mark Souder (R) of Indiana, says he never intended the cutoff to apply to new applicants for aid who may have had a past drug conviction. He says he believes that people must have a chance to redeem themselves and get a fresh start. He wants to revise the law to make it clear that it was meant to apply only to students currently getting aid.
But wouldn't the redemptive effect of education apply just as much to them, even if they are among the estimated one-third of college students who occasionally smoke marijuana?
Consider also that no other kind of past conviction, no matter how serious, carries a similar cutoff of aid?
This law is quite frankly a misfire in the drug war. It should be repealed, not altered.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor