Congress restores student financial aid eligibility for people with drug convictions

The coronavirus relief package passed by Congress over the weekend includes repealing the ban on federal financial aid to students convicted of drug offenses that has been on the books for more than 20 years. If signed into law by President Trump, the delivery of a massive relief and recovery program would reverse a policy adopted in 1998 at the height of the country’s failed war on drugs.

As part of the nearly 6,000-page, $900 billion bill to address the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has included higher education law reforms that have been under study for two years. Under the bill, students applying for financial aid would no longer be required to reveal whether they have drug convictions, a policy that has led to hundreds of thousands of students being denied education aid. students over the years.

Adam Smith is the founder of the Alliance for Sensible Markets, a group working to gain federal approval for interstate cannabis trade. He says restoring aid to convicted drug students is the culmination of 22 years of work by countless people. Smith has been involved in cannabis policy reform for more than two decades, when he helped lead opposition to a ban on federal aid for convicted drug students. In a telephone interview with Highlightshe explained the drastic effect the policy had on young people with minor drug offenses on their record.

“If you were penniless at age 15, you suddenly became ineligible for federal financial aid for life,” Smith said. “And to me, that was a microcosm of drug war madness. We’re going to show you how dangerous cannabis is, destroying your life if we find you with it, and making sure you can always educate yourself. .

Smith also noted that the ban on financial aid had a disproportionate impact on members of underserved communities while exacerbating the racial inequalities of the failed War on Drugs.

“It impacts the children who need the most help getting to school,” he said. “And because we know who’s being arrested, it massively affects young people of color.”

When the financial aid ban was enacted, Smith helped organize student leaders across the country, an effort that in part led to the founding of Students for Responsible Drug Policy (SSPD). Their work led to a policy rollback in 2006 so that the ban only applied to students convicted of a drug offense while receiving aid.

“For the past two decades, we have fought alongside other drug policy reform and education organizations to reduce the sanction,” said Rachel Wissner, SSPD’s acting co-executive director. . Marijuana Time. “Now that the sanction has been fully repealed, SSDP looks forward to the opportunity to work with Congress and the new administration on broader drug policy reform that ensures those who have been most affected by the War on Drugs are not left behind. We celebrate that Congress has finally accepted that a drug conviction does not mean someone should be denied access to higher education.

Financial aid for prisoners is also restored

The coronavirus relief package also includes other higher education reforms, including a complete overhaul of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), reducing the complicated form from 108 questions to a maximum of 36. The bill also restores eligibility for federal education aid. known as Pell Grants to incarcerated people, another ban from the 1990s that is a holdover from the War on Drugs.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education implemented a pilot program known as the Second Chance Pell that saw 12,000 people behind bars receive grants to pay for distance education and other educational programs that require tuition. The program was expanded by current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who urged Congress to make the change permanent.

“It was a bipartisan mistake and a bipartisan correction,” said John B. King Jr., who oversaw the Second Chance Pell program when he was education secretary under Obama. New York Times.

Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia, chairman of the House Education Committee and a supporter of the changes, said he was proud that Democrats were able to include “sweeping reforms on behalf of students across the country.” in the relief program.

“Congress has a responsibility to expand access to quality higher education, which remains the surest path to the middle class,” Scott said. “Although this is not a complete overhaul of the Higher Education Act and there is still work to be done, this proposal will help millions of students.”

For the reforms to take effect, the coronavirus relief package must be signed into law by President Trump. However, he called on Congress to increase relief payments from $600 for those included in the bill to $2,000, a request that could jeopardize Congressional agreement on the measure.