The student senate at the University of California at Berkeley is not waiting for Congress to get around to repealing the Higher Education Act's drug provision. Under that provision, students who are convicted of drug offenses lose access to federal financial aid for specified periods of time. While the measure has been amended by its author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), to only count offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving financial aid, hopes are high that the new Democratic Congress will repeal the measure in its entirety.
Wednesday night, the UC Berkeley student senate approved a measure that will grant $400 scholarships to students who cannot receive financial aid because of the drug provision. The ASUC Removing Impediments to Students' Education scholarship bill passed without objection and could come into effect this semester. To receive the scholarships, students must have a 2.5 Grade Point Average and commit to doing 20 hours of community service.
Berkeley's student government joins a number who have taken such "direct action" to reduce the consequences of the drug provision. In 2000, the year the drug provision first took effect, Hampshire College students voted in a referendum  organized by one of the first Students for Sensible Drug Policy  chapters to make up federal aid lost because of drug convictions out of the student activities fund. Yale University's administration adopted a similar policy in 2002  after being lobbied by student activists, as did the Western Washington University student government. Swarthmore College followed suit shortly thereafter . Also, since 2002 the John W. Perry Fund , sponsored by DRCNet Foundation (the publisher of this newsletter), has provided scholarships to students losing aid because of drug convictions nationally.
Students seeking Berkeley's scholarship must write a personal statement to be evaluated by a selection committee consisting of four student senators and the university's vice-president for student affairs. Scholarship recipients must pledge to donate back to the scholarship program when financially able. The bill also mandates that the student senate will write a letter to the university chancellor, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and President Bush, urging them to repeal the HEA drug provision.
The measure was introduced by student Sen. David Wasserman. According to the student newspaper The Daily Californian , Wasserman argued successfully that the HEA drug provision is counterproductive. "It is a poor way to fight the war on drugs. It's not right for the federal government to find the means to deprive students with a drug conviction of an education," Wasserman said.
Even the campus Republicans were on board. "Education is a means to success, it's a means to a future, it's a means to a goal in life. Denying that is truly not fair," said Berkeley College Republicans Sen. Victoria Mitchell.
"There was concern (among some senators) that the bill might encourage drug use," said Sen. Taylor Allbright. "But it encourages education. It encourages people who may have had difficulties to pick a better future through education."
UC Berkeley has long been in the vanguard of progressive change, and with this move, the student senate helps keep that reputation intact. "UC Berkeley is a beacon in the education community," Mitchell said. "Legislators pay attention to what happens. We're spearheading a movement."