WASHINGTON -- For over a decade, the federal government has denied students financial aid because they have a drug conviction, a cycle that discourages some students from applying and keeps others from getting their lives back on track.
A bipartisan group of senators plans to introduce legislation on Thursday that will end that by repealing a law widely viewed as an outdated relic of the drug war.
When students apply for federal financial aid, they must answer a question about whether they have been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs while receiving federal student aid in the past. If a student says "yes" or doesn't answer the question, then the government may legally suspend that student's financial aid, including grants, work study or loans. Students may become eligible again if they complete a drug rehabilitation program or pass approved drug tests, but these measures can be expensive.
The law does not punish students for juvenile offenses or tobacco and alcohol convictions, but it covers even minor drug use. First-time possession of pot -- a substance that is now legal to use recreationally in four states and Washington D.C. -- makes a student potentially ineligible for federal aid for one year.
The Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act, or SUCCESS Act, sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), repeals the language that strips students of aid because of a drug offense and removes the drug conviction question from the FAFSA form. The question alone may deter some students from applying for aid even if they are still eligible, advocates say.
"A youthful mistake shouldn’t keep a person out of college and the middle class,” Sen. Casey told The Huffington Post. “There’s now an emerging bipartisan consensus on the need to reform our criminal justice system and ensure students who have already paid their debt to society are not punished twice."
Between 2013 and 2014, 1,107 applicants lost eligibility for a full year of aid because of a drug conviction or a failure to report one, according to Department of Education data obtained by the Drug Policy Alliance. Six years earlier, the number was almost five times that. (It is possible some of these students may not have been eligible anyway, because of other factors.)
The policy is one of many old laws that inordinately impact minorities, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Former Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) tacked the amendment onto a House bill in 1998. "It was almost a different era," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were looking for any possible opportunity or way to make life more difficult for people who use illegal drugs."
Originally, the law was so sweeping, it punished students who had convictions before they received any financial aid. One of those students was Marisa Garcia, who paid a $415 fine after she was caught with a marijuana pipe and was then unable to get federal financial aid to attend California State University, Fullerton, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006. That year, there was a successful effort to modify the penalty so that it only applied to students caught with drugs while they were already receiving federal aid.
But student advocates, civil rights leaders and higher education officials have pushed for a full repeal for almost two decades, said Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. There have been other congressional efforts -- including a similar bill introduced in the House last November -- and this legislation could have a good shot now that both Republicans and Democrats are focused on criminal justice reform.
"It is not the Education Department’s job to punish students for drug infractions," Sen. Hatch told HuffPost. "Statistics and common sense tell us it is bad policy to deny students education if we want to reduce drug abuse and encourage young people to become successful."
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