Education law cited in pro-marijuana campaign

Federal education law, of all things, was a key selling point for Columbia, Mo., residents who voted to relax the penalties for people caught with a small amount of marijuana.

Dan Viets, a Columbia defense attorney who helped put the issue on last November’s ballot, said supporters spent a lot of time telling voters about a provision in the federal Higher Education Act.

The provision prohibits anyone who has been convicted of drug possession in a federal or state court from receiving federal student aid for a one-year period, though that can be waived if the individual goes through an approved treatment program. By having all cases go through municipal court, which the Columbia ordinance requires, the federal provision isn’t triggered.

“I think people began thinking about what is the point of kicking people out of college?” Viets said. “That is the dumbest thing I have heard Congress do recently. How does it help anybody to deprive them of the ability to advance their education?”

Viets said it was hard to determine how many students in Columbia were affected by the provision. Supporters of the law change have said that 160,000 people nationally have been denied aid since the provision took effect in 2000. They also point out that the sum doesn’t include the unknown number of people who never apply because they know they will be denied.

A check with Kansas University officials found that the number of people denied in Lawrence is very small. Todd Cohen, a KU spokesman, said that during the last year 18,498 people submitted an application for federal student aid. Three of those people admitted on their application that they had been convicted of a drug crime. Cohen said that, of the three, two were eligible because they had taken the required rehabilitation program.

Randy Boehm, Columbia police chief, said he expected the situation was similar in Columbia. But, he said, the supporters of the law changes – who received $50,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project to help provide public education during the campaign – did a good job of making that a hot-button issue.

“Quite frankly, the proponents ran a pretty smart campaign,” Boehm said. “They were able to successfully focus on a couple of pretty minor issues.”