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Cory Booker Bill Would Let Students With Drug Convictions Keep Financial Aid

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Every year, about 1,000 students lose some or all of their federal financial aid because they admit to having a conviction for a marijuana or other drug offense. But a Senate bill filed on Friday would change that.

One provision of the bill—which aims to “streamline the financial aid application process” overall—would eliminate a question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) regarding drug convictions. Currently, applicants must answer this question:

“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)?”

In some cases, a “yes” response could mean the difference between going on to graduate or dropping out. Low-income students, who might not be able to afford tuition without federal aid, are particularly impacted.

That’s why a growing number of civil rights, drug reform and higher education groups have called for the question to be removed from the FAFSA. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and a coalition of six other senators hope their new bill will achieve that goal.

“We know that when a student completes the federal financial aid form, he or she is more likely to receive aid, attend college, and graduate from college,” Booker said in a press release. “But sadly, less than half of today’s high school students complete the form, and students from underserved backgrounds complete the form at even lower rates than their peers.”

“Our bill would simplify the complicated process in order to reduce barriers to higher learning for students from marginalized populations.”

A similar House bill introduced by Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) last year also called for the elimination of the drug conviction eligibility question on the FAFSA.

The “Simplifying Financial Aid for Students Act” would do more than just remove that one question. It would also take steps to simplify the process of determining financial aid eligibility and make the FAFSA available to the young immigrants known as DREAMers, for example.

But the drug conviction question is an important one that’s penalized tens of thousands of students since Congress first enacted the aid ban in 1998. There have been efforts to revise the question so that students don’t automatically lose all of their aid if they self-report a drug conviction, but even a partial loss can derail students on the path to higher education.

“The drug conviction question, which remains on the FAFSA, serves solely as a deterrent to higher education from the students who might benefit from it most: particularly, students of color whose communities have been overpoliced and marginalized by the drug war,” Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment.

“We champion any effort to assure students equitable access to education, and look forward to the day when young people who are unlucky enough to be caught using drugs are not punished for the same behavior that half of their peers get away with.”

Initial cosponsors of Booker’s financial aid reform bill are Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Doug Jones (D-AL), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

New Congressional Bill Would Automatically Seal Marijuana Records

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

Senate Schedules Second Cannabis Hearing For Next Week

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A key Senate committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss hemp production, featuring witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the months since hemp and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s been strong interest in developing USDA and FDA regulations for the crop and its compounds such as CBD, and lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the agencies to speed up the rulemaking process to unlock the industry’s potential.

While the hearing notice doesn’t go into detail about what will be discussed, the meeting’s title—”Hemp Production and the 2018 Farm Bill”—and list of witnesses indicate that the conversation will revolve around the development of federal guidelines for hemp businesses.

USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Greg Ibach, USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy and EPA Assistant Administrator of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Alexandra Dunn will appear before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on July 25.

Other invited witnesses include Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish, National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Stark and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki.

The Senate Agriculture Committee meeting will mark the chamber’s second cannabis-related hearing of the week. The Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs announced on Tuesday that it will meet to discuss marijuana banking issues on July 23.

FDA and USDA have both recently signaled that they were cognizant of widespread interest in creating regulatory pathways for hemp and its derivatives, with USDA stating that it planned to release an interim final rule on the products in August and FDA’s Abernethy writing that the agency is “expediting” its rulemaking process. FDA added that it hoped to release a report on its progress by early fall.

That said, heads of the departments have also tried to temper expectations. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that USDA wouldn’t be expediting regulatory developments but that he expected them to be issued ahead of the 2020 planting seasons.

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, meanwhile, cited policy complications that would make it difficult for the agency to create an alternative regulatory pathway for hemp-derived CBD products to be lawfully marketed as food items or dietary supplements. He said that without congressional action, it may take FDA years to establish those rules.

Separately, officials from both FDA and USDA will participate in hemp conferences in August, where they’re also expected to update stakeholders on their progress.

Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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As More States Legalize, DEA Chops Down Fewer Marijuana Plants, Federal Data Shows

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized far fewer marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data released this month.

More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels.

NORML first noted the DEA report, which also shows that marijuana-related arrests the agency was involved with increased by about 20 percent in a year. And while the overall number of plants that were seized dropped, DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.

State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.

That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.

It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.

For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.

The data covers federal law enforcement actions and does not include those of local police agencies that did not partner with the agency.

Year-over-year decreases in cannabis seizures through DEA’s eradication program have been viewed by advocates as evidence that state-level legalization systems effectively displace the illicit market, removing the incentive to illegally cultivate cannabis.

Similarly, a separate recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission showed that federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking dropped precipitously in 2018—another sign demonstrating that state-level legalization is disrupting the illicit market, advocates argue.

NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment that “federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era.”

“At a time when roughly one-quarter of the country resides in a jurisdiction where adult marijuana use is legal, and when members of Congress are openly discussing removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is time for these federal anti-marijuana efforts to be put out to pasture and for federal agencies to take positions that more closely comport with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural status in America,” he said.

DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”

At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.

Legalizing Marijuana Leads To Fewer Illegal Grow Sites In National Forests, Study Finds

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Senate Schedules Hearing On Marijuana Business Banking Access

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In one of the clearest signs of marijuana reform’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill, a Republican-controlled Senate committee has scheduled a hearing for next week that will examine cannabis businesses’ lack of access to banking services.

The formal discussion in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday comes as legislation aimed at resolving the marijuana industry’s financial services problems is gaining momentum. A House cannabis banking bill that cleared that chamber’s Financial Services Committee with a bipartisan vote in March now has 206 cosponsors—nearly half the body—while companion Senate legislation has 32 out of 100 senators signed on.

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

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.
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