Clinton White House Considered Drug Testing Student-Loan Applicants

It was a lifetime ago where drug policy is concerned, but the Clinton administration wasn't ahead of its time when it came to asking kids to pee in cups.

National Journal

It didn't make it into the flurry of news coverage on Friday, but when the latest batch of internal documents was released from the Clinton White House, a particularly curious line of poll questioning stood out.

In 1998, the Clinton administration poll tested the idea of making college students pee in cups to prove they're not on drugs in order to qualify for financial aid, according to papers released by the Clinton Library.

While the collect-student-pee idea was never implemented, Clinton did sign the Higher Education Act reauthorization into law in 1998. The legislation included a measure stripping aid from more than 200,000 students convicted for drug offenses, something drug reformers have come to refer to as the "smoke a joint, lose your federal aid" provision. The provision has since been scaled back, though never fully repealed.

Back then, a full 75 percent of people supported requiring applicants to pass a drug test in order to receive student loans, and 80 percent supported limiting the eligibility of applicants for federal student loans should they actually test positive, according to the polling results cited by the Clinton administration. Below is the relevant section from Friday's release:

It might as well have been a lifetime ago where drug policy is concerned.

In 1998 medical marijuana was only legal in a handful of states (today it's available in 21). The racially loaded disparity in sentences for users of crack and users of powdered cocaine was still 100-1. And Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization formed to oppose policies such the ones polled above, didn't even exist yet.

"Legalization was barely a topic for debate, much less the mainstream, majority-supported issue it is today," said Tom Angell, who spent several years on staff at SSDP before going to work for another pro-reform group, Marijuana Majority. "If you polled this question in 2014 I'm confident you'd see dramatically less support for this draconian policy than the Clinton White House found in 1998."

Perhaps the most relevant debate today revolves around requiring food-stamp recipients to take drug tests — and the public has evolved there less than you might think. The House of Representatives recently passed legislation that would allow states to require food-stamp recipients get drug tested, and a majority of Americans (64 percent, according to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll) still like the idea of drug testing for welfare recipients, a more stigmatized population than college applicants.

But if there's one population Americans most like to see forced to pee in cups, it appears that it would be Congress. Too bad the Clinton administration didn't think of polling that.