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Students with Drug Convictions Can Finally Get Financial Aid Under Federal Bill
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The new federal budget bill will restore financial aid to students with drug convictions, but blocks Washington DC from implementing legal cannabis sales.
Published on December 22, 2020

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The country can collectively breathe a sigh of relief this week now that Congress has finally approved a massive $900 billion COVID rescue package. This long-overdue aid package was bundled into a larger federal funding bill that will keep the government running until next September and will include aid for small businesses, unemployed Americans, and public transit systems.

Congress has been tacking cannabis-related amendments onto annual budget bills for years, and this year is no exception. The new bill includes language that prohibits the feds from interfering with state-legal medical marijuana programs, a rider that has been attached to every annual budget bill since 2014. But this is not the only cannabis-related provision hidden in the depths of this mammoth 5,593-page bill.

In the ‘90s, Congress amended the Higher Education Act to add the Aid Elimination Penalty, a provision that denies standard federal financial aid to any student convicted of any prior drug offense, no matter how minor. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) asks all applicants whether they were convicted of a drug offense, and anyone who answers yes to this question is denied financial aid outright. 

This penalty has blocked nearly 200,000 students from accessing college aid, according to advocacy group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). Now at last, this year's budget bill will remove the Aid Elimination Penalty, restoring financial aid for students charged with minor drug crimes.

“This amendment has denied federal financial aid to hundreds of thousands of students, particularly burdening students of color from communities marginalized by the War on Drugs,” said SSDP co-interim executive director Rachel Wissner to Marijuana Moment. “Over the last two decades, we have been fighting alongside other drug policy reform and education organizations to scale back the penalty.”

“Now that the penalty has fully been repealed, SSDP looks forward to the opportunity to work with Congress and the new administration on broader drug policy reform that ensure those who have been most harmed by the War on Drugs are not left behind,” Wissner added. “We celebrate that Congress has finally accepted that a drug conviction does not mean that someone should be denied access to higher education.”

“No one should be denied access to education because of a criminal record,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “For more than twenty years, these policies have punished students who rely on federal aid to attend college and disproportionately harmed Black and Brown people targeted by drug enforcement.” 

However, the omnibus bill also includes a few disappointments for the cannabis sector. Although the bill will protect state-legal medical marijuana businesses from federal interference, lawmakers declined to expand those protections to state-authorized adult-use businesses. The US House also tried to include a provision that would allow banks to legally offer financial services to cannabis businesses, but this amendment was struck down during final negotiations.

Lawmakers also approved a longstanding rider that prevents Washington DC from creating a taxed and regulated cannabis sales market. DC voters legalized personal cannabis use, but not sales, in 2014, and Congress has consistently blocked the city from moving ahead with retail sales – an especially cruel imposition considering that residents of the nation's capital have no representation in Congress.

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Chris Moore
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Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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