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Drug Policy Conundrum
May 1, 2002
By Monica_L

What do John W. Perry and George W. Bush have in common in addition to a middle initial? Both men have been permanently affected by September 11th terrorist and attacks in New York City and both held strong views regarding U.S. drug policy. But that is where all similarity ends.

Prior to Perry's untimely death at age 38, the New York City Police officer and ACLU activist was a staunch and vocal opponent of the government's 'war on drugs.' Off duty that fateful morning last September, Perry happened to be in lower Manhatten when the first hijacked airplane crashed into World Trade Center Tower One, prompting him and a fellow officer to rush to the scene. Perry never emerged from the collapsing tower but is credited with rescuing hundreds of injured and panicking civilians.

Currently there is a scholarship fund in the fallen officer's name. The John W. Perry Fund will assist applicants who have been denied federal student financial aid due to the Bush Administration's stringent enforcement of a 1998 law sponsored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN).

Section 484, subsection R of the Higher Education Act of 1998 denies or delays financial aid to student applicants possessing misdemeanor or felony drug convictions. For each of the first two convictions, an applicant loses eligibility for the corresponding number of years, while three possession or two sales convictions result in indefinite ineligibility.

The law has received renewed attention of late by both supporters and detractors. Those in favor of the law make the claim that it promotes accountability for one's actions and makes more money available for law-abiding students, although none eligible have ever been denied this entitlement. Detractors of the law say it impacts mainly low-income students while their more affluent peers are unaffected by the repercussions of drug convictions. Students for Sensible Drug Policy estimate that to date 64,000 students have been denied aid based on the newly-enforced sanctions.

This policy pits the two ideological factions regarding drug abuse into opposite camps: hawks who espouse the belief that tough sentencing laws and zero tolerance are the best way to eradicate drug use among young Americans, and those who believe drug use and addiction among non-violent offenders is mainly a public health issue which is best handled by treatment providers.

The debate was ratcheted up a notch when the Office of National Drug Control Policy aired controversial commercials for the first time during the 2002 Super Bowl in which teenage drug use was linked with international terrorism. The ads opened a $10 million media blitz which proclaimed that money from the drug trade finances acts of terror. While cost-effective drug treatment programs continue to go underfunded, the government spent scarce funds to purchase the most expensive air-time available on television to promote the dubious theory that our nation's teenagers are killers by proxy.

Absent the emotional impact of the purported drug/terrorist connection, the statement is one that reveals itself as being long on speculation and short on facts. Non-violent drug users are deemed guilty by association for the actions of drug traffickers overseas. The message might not ring so hollow if gas consumers were likewise taken to task for providing financial support to terrorism. Additionally, the drug/terror connection is dubious at best since teenagers are statistically more likely to abuse alcohol and marijuana than Columbian cocaine or heroin from Afghanistan.

ONDCP director John Walters is no stranger to controversial statements and speculation. A hard-line drug warrior and deputy drug czar to William Bennett during the Bush I administration, Walters is co-author of the book Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs. He, William Bennett and John DiIulio warned of the emergence of a wave of cold-blooded superpredators in early 21st century America. Not only has their prediction not become reality, their theory has since discredited by bona fide criminologists as junk sociology.

Prior to Bush assuming office, students who left the drug-conviction question on their financial-aid application form blank were not penalized for the omission. Bush, whose own rumored substance abuse never became a substantial issue during his presidential campaign, and has been largely ignored by the media ever since, has not endured the scrutiny or questions regarding his fitness to take the moral high ground on this issue.

President Clinton's detractors pilloried him for his infamous defense that although he had experimented with marijuana, the then-Oxford student 'didn't inhale.' Critics labeled him soft on crime for his emphasis on treatment and prevention over long sentences and expensive military interdiction although drug arrests and drug control spending rose to record levels during Clinton's two terms. To his credit, however, drug courts proliferated in the 1990's and millions of non-violent addicts avoided jail, kicked their habit and became productive members of society at a substantial savings to taxpayers.

Bush also reneged on his campaign promise to take a compassionate conservative approach to drug policy. Whether or not the cocaine abuse rumors which briefly surfaced at that time are true, George W. Bush, an admitted alcoholic, escaped the accountability and consequences he now imposes on others with substance abuse problems.

Section 484 of the Higher Education Act of 1998 should be repealed and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) has introduced legislation H.R. 786 against this discriminatory and counterproductive law. Yale University has sided with Frank and against its most famous alumnus on this issue. Yale is one of a handful of colleges providing funds to those who have been turned down for financial aid in the past year.

Officer Perry was submitting his resignation form on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was supposed to have been his last day on the force because Perry had come the conclusion that he could help more people outside of law enforcement. It was and he is.

Perry's legacy will be to help Americans who would be punished more than once and perhaps perpetually for much less egregious 'youthful indiscretions' than those of the man who occupies the White House.

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