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The Daily Tar Heel

DOE Seeks to Clarify Drug Conviction Question

Many applicants have left the question blank, leading education officials to suspect the question is often misunderstood.

The revised wording explicitly states that students are required to answer the question. The new question asks if the student has "ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs."

Roger Murphey, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said revision of the question has not negatively affected a large number of students.

Out of 3,944,000 applications processed since March 26, he said only 27,000 have answered "yes" to the question. Of those 27,000, more than 12 ,000 have been deemed eligible to receive financial aid by filling out an additional form about their drug conviction.

Murphey added that that only 0.5 percent of applicants have been barred from receiving federal financial aid because of their response to the question. He said these students were denied aid because they did not answer the question or have not yet filled out the additional form.

Julie Mallette, N.C. State University's financial aid director, said she has not seen an increase or decrease in the number of applicants who were rejected for either leaving the question blank or not answering it at all.

"I've not really seen a difference this year compared to last year," she said.

Mallette added that only a handful of students both last year and this year were affected. "It's not a significant problem for us," she said.

But Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he strongly opposes the question. "It's often said, and it's true, that laws are the institutionalization of the morals of society, and if that's true then the passing of this law is truly bizarre," he said.

St. Pierre also said he thinks the question is unfair because drug use is specifically singled out as the only illegal activity standing in the way of receiving federal financial aid. "It is socially accepted that rape is worse than smoking a single marijuana cigarette."

St. Pierre said he has frequented UNC-Chapel Hill's campus giving lectures for NORML and does not think the underage drinking he has observed as being less dangerous than smoking marijuana.

"There are 10,000 inebriated college students not of legal drinking age every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night," he said. "It is more acceptable on college campuses for a student to drink than to smoke marijuana."

St. Pierre said having any sort of question asking about prior drug convictions creates an uneven playing field for prospective students. "Someone can spend $3,000 to $5,000 and get (his record) expunged," he said.

And he added that the question is somewhat racist because minorities are convicted more often than whites. "These (minorities) are the people who need the money the most," he said.

St. Pierre said one change he would like to see was a change in the wording of the question from illegal drug use to a felony conviction.

"They should just change that one bloody word."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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