Student Aid Penalty for Drug Convictions May End

Student Cannabis Now Magazine

In 1998, the famously educated, youthful pot-sampling President Bill Clinton signed a law that took away financial aid from students who had been convicted on drug charges. After Clinton followed the familiar pattern of triangulating credit for a Republican-introduced bill (Rep. Mark Souder, R-IN), George W. Bush’s administration started enforcing it almost as soon as Bush took office.

“If my son goes to a party and he doesn’t have the courage to say, ‘No, I don’t want to smoke a joint,’ he can say, ‘No, I could lose my student loan,’” Souder once told the New York Times. “It’s not actually a good example, because my son is not on scholarship.”

Yes, using the privileged son of United States Congressman to illustrate how this policy would affect students wasn’t a good example. Later, Souder resigned from Congress in 2010 after admitting an affair with a staffer with whom he videotaped an abstinence education appearance. As expected, the law has disproportionately affected minority and lower-income Americans. The Drug Policy Alliance said in a press release Souder’s law had affected more than 200,000 American students since 2000.

Times have changed on criminal justice reform enough that fierce prohibitionist and longtime Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in the Senate this week that would repeal the Clinton-era legislation. The Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success (SUCCESS) Act removes the drug conviction question from the federal student financial aid form.

“It is not the Education Department’s job to punish students for drug infractions,” Hatch told Huffington Post.

Under current law, a student with a first-time conviction for possession of a controlled substance on his or her record is not eligible for grants, work-study, or student loans for a year, and on a second offense, two years. Beyond that, ineligibility is indefinite. A first conviction for selling is two years. If it’s a tobacco or alcohol conviction, those don’t count. Cannabis does.

To restore eligibility, a student has to undergo expensive drug rehabilitation and pass multiple drug tests.

It all amounts to double punishment. First, the individual faces the sanction of the conviction including jail time and/or fines. Next, even after paying, the punishment for attempting an education kicks in.

“There’s now an emerging bipartisan consensus on the need to reform our criminal justice system and ensure students who have already paid their debt to society and are not punished twice,” Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said to the Huffington Post.

An effort to help students is not the only federal effort to roll back harms caused by the incarceration explosion. Last November, thwarted by Congress, President Obama signed an executive order to “ban the box” on federal employment. The box in question asks job applicants to reveal their criminal record, which in turn makes it harder for those with convictions to gain employment, making it more likely they’ll re-offend.

Estimates of lost gross domestic product due to employment losses among people with records is as much as $65 billion per year. The National Institute of Justice says more than any other stigma a criminal record negatively affects someone’s chance at employment.

“Education and job opportunities are among our best tools to fight the individual and community-level impacts of drug misuse, so student advocates, civil rights leaders and higher education officials have been pushing to repeal this senseless penalty for almost two decades,” Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told US News.

If longtime Drug War hawk Orrin Hatch is aboard, it’s a signal those two decades of work may soon pay off.

Do you know anyone this policy has affected?

Sean Quinn is an Oakland-based writer who co-pioneered FiveThirtyEight, earning national acclaim for his coverage of the presidential campaigns’ 2008 field operations. He dreams of a country where cannabis is legal, all Americans are treated equally under the law, and the St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup Champions.

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