Since 1998, U.S. college students relying on federal financial aid to help pay their tuition have put their access to education at risk every time they brought a joint to their lips. That year’s version of the Higher Education Act made it so that anybody with a conviction for possessing or selling an illegal drug would automatically lose their aid eligibility for anywhere from one year to indefinitely.
While the penalty has since been scaled back so that it no longer applies to past offenses and only covers people who get convicted while they are in school and receiving aid at the time of their offense, it still strips access to education from students busted on campus with a small amount of cannabis.
“Nearly half of the population has smoked marijuana at some point in their lives, and now in four states and the District of Columbia, people can do so legally,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), lead sponsor of the Fair Access to Education Act of 2016, said in a floor statement. “It is senseless that we would limit a student’s future for any drug offense for which they have served their sentence, and even more senseless that we would do so for an offense for a drug that a majority believes should be legal.”
The current penalty is enforced through a question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which students must fill out in order to determine their eligibility for federal grants and loans.
Blumenauer says the question is “intimidating” and deters some students from applying in the first place, even though they would ultimately end up realizing they are eligible to receive aid after filling out a follow-up worksheet.
“One of our greatest opportunities as Americans to better ourselves and start anew is pushed out of reach for many because of an outdated bias built into our federal student aid application,” he said.
A broad coalition of education, civil rights and faith groups has pushed over the years to get the penalty completely overturned. Organizations that have asked Congress to reinstate aid to students regardless of whether they’ve been convicted of drug offenses include the National Education Association, the Association for Addiction Professionals, the NAACP, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the United States Student Association.
Calling the penalty “outdated” and “unfair,” Blumenauer said that it “traps those seeking to recover from mistakes and create opportunities for themselves.”
And he criticized how it only applies to students from families that can’t afford to pay for college without government assistance.
“Current policy is inevitably more harmful to those with the greatest need,” he said. “If a student has a misdemeanor marijuana offense but is fully able to afford an education on their own, their future is not limited.”
Advocates like those with the organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy have also argued that the penalty has a racially disparate impact and point out that there is no similar aid ban for people convicted of more serious crimes like murder, rape or robbery.
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