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Booker Bill Would Protect Students With Drug Convictions From Losing Federal College Aid

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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)?”

Via FAFSA.

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.

Lawmakers Want Legal Protections For Universities That Research Marijuana

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Andrew Yang Contrasts Rampant Opioid Prescribing With Marijuana Criminalization

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Andrew Yang contrasted the widespread prescribing of opioids with the ongoing criminalization of marijuana on Wednesday.

In a tweet, the entrepreneur and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said there were “more opiate prescriptions in the state of Ohio than people in Ohio,” yet “marijuana is still classified as a schedule 1 drug” under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

He’s brought that point up before, at a presidential debate in October. Asked about his proposed to decriminalize possession of opioids to combat the drug overdose crisis, Yang brought up the statistic and criticized the government for failing to take action against pharmaceutic companies that aggressively marketed addictive painkillers.

“If the government turned a blind eye to this company, spreading a plague among its people, then the least we can do is put a resource into work in our communities so that people have a fighting chance to get well, even though this is not a money problem,” he said at the time.

NBC News confirmed that, in 2010, federal data shows there were 102.4 opioid prescriptions in Ohio for every 100 persons. That’s decreased since then, with 2017 data showing 63.5 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons in the state.

Yang, who supports comprehensive marijuana legalization, has also embraced other harm reduction policies. Beyond decriminalizing opioids, he said in an interview published last week that he’s in favor of providing federal funding for the establishment of safe injection facilities, where individuals can use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive assistance getting into treatment.

Yang has not yet called for decriminalization of substances beyond opioids and cannabis, however. That policy is backed by rival contenders South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, also presidential candidates, have called for the establishment of safe injection sites.

Killer Mike Credits Bernie Sanders For Inspiring Marijuana Legalization Movement

Photo courtesy of ABC News.

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Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed In Virginia Ahead Of Attorney General’s Cannabis Summit

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The attorney general of Virginia held a cannabis summit on Wednesday, with representatives of states that have legalized marijuana sharing their insights as lawmakers in the Commonwealth prepare to push reform legislation in the coming session.

This event came one day after a lawmaker prefiled a bill to legalize marijuana for adult use and expand the state’s existing limited medical cannabis program.

The event featured panels on marijuana decriminalization, social equity, public health, hemp, CBD and creating a pathway for eventual legalization. The goal was to answer policy questions and inform legislation, which Attorney General Mark Herring (D) hopes will start with decriminalization and expungements and later adult-use legalization.

“I don’t believe that Virginia’s current approach of criminalizing cannabis is working,” Herring said in his opening remarks. “It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions.”

“The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers. And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” he said. “It’s clear to me that the time for cannabis reform has come. Justice demands it. Virginians are demanding it. And I’m going to help make sure we get this right.”

Watch video of the Virginia Cannabis Summit  below: 

Representatives from Colorado and Illinois discussed law enforcement and equity in regulated marijuana markets.

The prospects of passing reform measures greatly increased in Virginia after November’s election, which saw Democrats reclaim control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in decades. Herring said the timing is right to “plot a course for a smarter, fairer, more just cannabis policy” in the state.

Sen. Dave Marsden (D), co-founder of the legislature’s recently established Cannabis Caucus, said at the summit that ensuring that the legal market is equitable is paramount.

“We can’t substitute a civil process for a criminal one and not expect it to lead to disparities,” he said.

“Following several years of forming consensus around medical cannabis products, we have to be ready to take action in the upcoming legislative session to further reform our laws in this arena,” he said in a press release. “This effort will include a more robust medical cannabis program and Attorney General Herring’s summit is a big step in ensuring we are knowledgeable on the issue and prepared to do this right.”

“Virginia is ready for evidence-based reform and that is what we will provide.”

Del. Stephen Heretick (D) said the summit “is a great opportunity for me and my fellow legislators to learn from the experiences of other states as we consider how to create more fair, just, equitable, and effective cannabis laws here in Virginia.”

Decriminalization is the first proposal on the agenda when the next session starts, the attorney general said. That would fulfill a campaign promise of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who ran on the issue in 2017 and talked about in his State of the Commonwealth address this year.

“It’s time for public policy to catch up with public opinion, and NORML applauds Attorney General Herring for his efforts to foster and advance evidence-based cannabis laws,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML said. “We look forward to supporting the attorney general and the Virginia Cannabis Caucus in their work reforming marijuana laws for a safer Commonwealth.”

While Northam hasn’t voiced support for recreational legalization, Herring said last week that Wednesday’s summit is one resource that will help the state move toward comprehensive reform.

“Based on my conversations, he supports decriminalization,” Herring, who is also running for governor in 2021, said. “Like a lot of people, I think they’d like to get more information about what legalization and what regulated, adult-use would look like.”

A bill to decriminalize marijuana and make possession of up to one ounce punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty was prefiled in the legislature last month.

This latest legalization bill, introduced by Del. Lee Carter (D), will likely be a heavier lift. It would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers, and it would impose a 10 percent tax, revenue from which would go toward a veterans fund, transportation and local municipalities that allow marijuana businesses to operate.

“While a majority of Virginians agree with Attorney General Herring that marijuana should be legal for responsible use by adults, it may take a bit more work to convince the Virginia General Assembly to send such a bill to the governor’s desk,” Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “Todays summit is an important, and historic, step toward that goal, and NORML is proud to be a part of it.”

Vermont Should Legalize Marijuana Sales, Top Health Department Official Says

Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.

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Thailand Prime Minister Uses Medical Marijuana At Event With Ganja Mascot

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Top officials in Thailand are getting the word out about medical marijuana—in part by distributing cartoon cannabis dolls and publicly using marijuana oils.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the launch of the government’s medical cannabis education site on Wednesday and appeared at an event alongside a person wearing a spectacled marijuana leaf costume called Dr. Ganja. Children were also present, carrying their own Dr. Ganja dolls.

Prayut argued in favor of the therapeutic use of cannabis, stating that it represents a potential treatment option for low-income people in particular. According to The Nation Thailand, he also demonstrated marijuana products, inhaling an oil and applying some to the back of his ears. The prime minister also said he plans to purchase some oils himself.

The government’s education site features information about where to find cannabis clinics, what kinds of products are available and infographics laying out basic research into marijuana.

Via MedCannabis.

Thai lawmakers have made clear their excitement about medical cannabis, with several filmed participating in a ritual dance in August to celebrate the first batch of marijuana oil.

Months after Thailand opted to legalize medical marijuana, the ruling party unveiled draft legislation in September that allows individuals to cultivate up to six cannabis plants for personal use.

GOP Senator Shares Photo Of His Dad Harvesting Hemp Decades Ago

Photo courtesy of Bhumjaithai Party.

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