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Students with drug convictions would no longer have to worry about being denied or losing federal financial aid under a bill introduced on Tuesday.
Reps. Karen Bass (D-CA) and Danny Davis (D-IL) filed the legislation, titled the Financial Aid Fairness for Students Act, or FAFSA Act. It would repeal a law that renders students ineligible for federal loans, grants and work-study assistance if they’ve been convicted of possessing or selling drugs.
The lawmakers said under the “findings” section of the bill that because the drug war has disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities, those groups are most impacted by the education policy, which has discouraged students from even applying for financial aid and thus impedes opportunities to graduate and attain well-paid jobs.
Text of the bill states that empowering disadvantaged communities to attain higher education “is critical to reversing decades of exclusionary policies that have adversely impacted people of color” and that because “criminal sentencing laws in the United States disproportionately impact racial minorities and low-income communities, the Aid Elimination Penalty may disproportionately hinder these same groups from accessing Federal financial aid.”
“Recognizing that an educated citizenry is the powerhouse of the nation, that higher education allows Americans to access well-paying jobs, healthcare, strong interpersonal relationships and a higher quality of life, the Federal Government should incentivize the pursuit of higher education while ensuring equality of opportunity.”
Besides repealing the anti-drug penalty itself, the legislation would add a section stipulating that the Secretary of Education could not add any question “about the conviction of an applicant for the possession or sale of illegal drugs” on the federal financial aid application.
“Mounting student loan debt is a crisis in our country,” Bass said in a press release. “As we rethink the War on Drugs and the convictions and prison sentences that came with it, we must address all aspects that impacted our communities.”
“We should be doing everything we can to break down these barriers. Each of us here in Congress owe it to our constituents to assist in every way we can, which is why I’ve introduced legislation to eliminate barriers preventing people with a drug conviction from being able to receive federal financial aid,” she said. “Investing in a person’s education is perhaps the best investment we can make to ensure our young people succeed.”
The FAFSA Act currently has 32 cosponsors, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Don Young (R-AK), Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA).
“We commend Representatives Bass and Davis for addressing one of the barriers to education for people with drug convictions by ensuring that they can continue to receive funding for their education,” Students for Sensible Drug Policy Executive Director Betty Aldworth told Marijuana Moment. “Evidence shows that investing in young people’s education is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism and chaotic drug use, and making that education available to as many people as possible will strengthen our communities.”
“We urge Congress to pass the FAFSA Act quickly so we can work toward repairing the harms of the War on Drugs, especially those that unfairly target minority and low-income populations,” she said.
Davis, a chief sponsor, said that education “promotes economic well-being and labor force participation.”
“Excluding individuals who have struggled with addiction from financial assistance is an ineffective policy that has harmed tens of thousands of students,” he said. “This policy unfairly targets poor and minority students and costs society more in terms of crime and lost economic productivity. Repealing this penalty is a smart, cost-effective investment of taxpayer dollars, and I will advocate for its inclusion in any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.”
The bill is similar in intent but more far reaching compared to one introduced in July that would protect students from losing financial aid if they were caught possessing marijuana, as long as there was no distribution element. That legislation would also require the student to complete a drug rehabilitation program to maintain eligibility.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) also called for eliminating the drug question from federal financial aid applications as part of legislation he filed in May to streamline the application process.