Drug Users Risk Losing U.S. Benefits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration served notice Tuesday that casual drug users run the risk of losing their right to an array of federal benefits, including academic grants, student and small business loans and virtually all licenses subject to federal regulation.

With the joint announcement by the White House's National Drug Control Policy Office and the Justice Department, the machinery is now in place to carry out the benefits denial program mandated by the 1988 anti-drug law. Until now, the legislation had been only partially implemented.

"In short, if you use drugs, you run the risk of losing federal benefits," said drug control director William J. Bennett as he hailed the new deterrent. "It gives judges an opportunity to take an action, where before there was no alternative to imprisonment or probation."

Assistant Atty. Gen. Jimmy Gurule said: "Drug users must be held accountable for their actions . . . . Although one may 'only' be a drug user, students stand to lose student loans, physicians stand to lose the right to prescribe, pilots stand to lose their licenses and small businesses stand to lose loans."

As legislated by Congress two years ago, the program authorizes federal and state judges to suspend many federal benefits for convicted drug users for up to a year for first offenders and up to five years for second-time offenders. It allows the judge to waive the ban if the user undergoes a rehabilitation program and is drug-free for at least six months.

The law mandates a perpetual ban on benefits for drug traffickers convicted for a third time and allows judges to suspend benefits for five to 10 years for earlier convictions.

Congress exempted from the program most "safety net" entitlements, such as Social Security, welfare, disability or veterans benefits and federal benefit programs for American Indians.

Bennett acknowledged that the program is targeted primarily at middle-class recreational drug users, rather than dropouts, the chronically unemployed and other "underclass" users who are more likely to receive safety-net benefits and more likely to be jailed if convicted.

"Sure, it's aimed at the middle class," Bennett said. "Federal government entitlements go across the board, but the middle class is a very large part of it, and the safety-net programs remain intact."

Bennett noted, however, that there have been indications that Congress might choose to go a step further by authorizing denial of some welfare benefits received by drug users.

Gurule said federal prosecutors and federal judges across the country have been briefed on the program, whose regulatory details were formally published Tuesday. U.S. attorneys could begin to ask judges to apply the denial program as early as today, he said.

The Justice Department task force responsible for the program has written the highest court justice and court administrator in each state and established a computerized clearinghouse of information regarding benefits affected by the program. The identities of drug users and traffickers who are denied benefits will be entered in a master list, with coded entries to designate the benefits to be denied and the period of the denial.

Except for the mandatory permanent ban for third-time drug trafficking convictions, state and federal judges are given wide discretion. They may specify which benefits will be denied and the length of the ban within limits set by the law. They also have discretion to decide whether the terms of rehabilitation have been met and whether to lift the ban for a rehabilitated drug user.

Applications for all federal entitlements affected by the program require certification by the applicant that he has not been convicted of any drug use or trafficking offense.

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