A congressional bill designed to streamline the student federal financial aid application process—which would also remove a question about prior drug convictions from the form—was filed in the Senate on Wednesday with the support of two presidential candidates.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)—who are running for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination—along with Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced the legislation. The bulk of the bill is designed to help disadvantaged students get the most out of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but it also includes provisions to remove questions that are “duplicative and irrelevant.”
One of those questions concerns past drug convictions. The application asks “Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, work-study, or loans)?”
Answering “yes” could cause financial aid to be denied or suspended, and affected students are required to complete drug rehabilitation programs, pass two drug tests or wait specified periods of time to have their grants or loans reinstated.
“The complexity of a financial aid form should not limit the opportunities available to our country’s young people,” Booker said in a press release. “Yet, that is sadly the reality for many low-income students and students of color. Our future depends on how we educate the next generation—it’s time we start lowering the barriers to entry and begin including more students.”
The drug conviction question has penalized tens of thousands of students since the requirement was added in a 1998 reform of the Higher Education Act. Despite attempts to revise to question so there isn’t an automatic loss of all federal financial aid for a self-reported conviction, even partial losses can impact students, particularly those who are low-income.
Beyond simply removing the drug question from the FAFSA form, the new legislation would also repeal the underlying penalty that strips aid from students with convictions for marijuana or other controlled substances.
“Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) supports Senator Booker’s new bill because it would lift or ease many of the barriers to higher education that currently exist today,” Betty Aldworth, executive director of SSDP, told Marijuana Moment. “SSDP has been seeking the removal of the Aid Elimination Penalty since it was first signed into law and this bill would finally repeal the harmful penalty that continues to derail the lives of thousands of students every year—for too long, another compounding harm of our broken and dangerous drug policy borne primarily by people of color or low income who are most often targeted by police.”
“No student should lose access to higher education simply for a drug conviction and this bill would finally have the law catch up to common sense on this issue,” she said.
Booker introduced an earlier version of the legislation last year. Before that, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) called for the elimination of the drug conviction eligibility question on the FAFSA in 2017.
Booker, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has been a champion of several wide-ranging marijuana reform bills, including the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances and punish states that continue to enforce marijuana prohibition in a discriminatory way.
Gillibrand is also running for her party’s presidential nomination and has been active on marijuana reform legislation.
At the same time that the senators are looking out for students with non-violent drug offenses on their records, other lawmakers in Congress are pushing to ensure that universities that study marijuana do not have their federal grants withheld.
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