Russell Hebets Oct. 7, 2010

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experimented with an illegal drug. A substantial number of us have—36% of Americans over age 12, according to a 1998 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Recreational marijuana (and, to a lesser extent, other drug) use is a thread in the modern adolescent social tapestry. If you went to a party during high school, chances are excellent someone there was toking. In any event, the purpose of this article is neither to sermonize on the morality of drugs/drug use, nor to opine on the trends therein; rather it is to say this: the United States government has made a declaration of war, pursuant to which YOU are its enemy if you have ANYTHING to do with illegal drugs.

In 1971, President Nixon immortalized American public policy on illegal substances, captioning related laws and their enforcement the “War on Drugs.” Although statutes restricting or banning drug use had been on the books since the beginning of World War I, it was Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act that elevated the scene from a symbolic skirmish to an all out war—a war which, by the way, has seen drug-related incarcerations increase at five times the rate of incarcerations in general (Mauer, 1999) and enforcement costs rise to an astounding $44 billion per year (Miron, 2008). But enough with the history lesson.

Here’s why you should care. Being convicted of a drug crime directly impacts your bottom line, and therefore your quality of life—especially if you are a college student or aspiring college student. Since 2002, “any student who has been convicted of any offense under any Federal or State law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance shall not be eligible to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance under…[federal law]” (exactly quoted from the text of the 1998 Higher Education Re-authorization Act, as amended). To put it plainly, at a minimum, you can’t qualify for federal financial aid for at least one year, short of completing a drug rehab program.

The impacts of a drug incident don’t end there. Most schools and universities have information-sharing compacts with local law enforcement, so if campus security cites you for drug possession/use, you’ll most likely be getting a ticket from the cops too (and vice versa). From there, most colleges have student codes of conduct that assess various penalties simply for being written up/ticketed. At the University of Colorado, for example, any student “who knew or reasonably should have known she was in the presence of illegal drugs” has committed a drug offense, the first of which is punishable by: parental notification, five hours community service, a drug education class, and academic probation for one semester.

Let’s not even discuss the life-long ramifications a drug conviction will carry. That potential employers, schools, licensing bodies and scholarship selection committees have almost limitless discretion to deny you what you seek from them (and would eagerly do just that on the basis of an unclean background check) speaks for itself.

The War on Drugs is an ideological one, to be sure, and its casualties range from costly, irritating and time-consuming efforts to secure a deferred judgment or dismissal to financial and reputational ruin to deprivation of future opportunities to prison time. No matter what your sentiments are toward drugs, the fact of the matter is just by being in the presence of an illegal drug you could be cited for possession. If convicted, all the ensuing effects of a drug conviction discussed in this article could come crashing down on you. And in this hypothetical, you’re a non-user! The severity of punishment and likelihood of being punished only increase from there.

Sources:Blumenson and Nilsen in 2002.Eric and Eva.Professors, Suffolk Univeristy Law School and Boston University Law School, respectively.How to Consturct an Underclass, or How the War on Drugs Became a War on Education.Journal of Gender, Race & Justice.Spring 2002.Accessed online.Lexis-Nexis.

Colorado Revised Statutes 18-18-101 to 406

Mauer in 1999.Marc.Race to Incarcerate.Accessed online.Lexis-Nexis.

Miron in 2008.Jeffrey.Professor of Economics, Harvard University.Author, Drug War Crimes: the Consequences of Prohibition.Accessed online.