A 35-year-old seeking a college degree could – up until now – be ineligible for federal financial aid because of a marijuana conviction more than 15 years ago. Signaling a rare victory for opponents of harsh federal drug policies, two weeks ago, Congress lightened the punishment on drug offenders seeking need-based federal financial aid in college. Under the revised amendment to the Higher Education Act, however, students whose convictions occur during their time in college will still be denied aid. Although this revision will provide tangible benefits for thousands of students across the nation, it is still inherently unfair – affecting only those eligible for need-based financial aid – and only a partial step toward creating a more acceptable drug policy.

Sarah Royce

The older regulations, adopted in 1998, denied federal financial aid to any student with a drug conviction who had been tried as an adult. Wealthier students might go through life unaware of these restrictions, not being considered for aid regardless of drug use. But for others, these restrictions marked the difference between attending college and dropping out. These restrictions were particularly harsh because they could prevent past offenders from obtaining a college education for a joint rolled years ago.

The new amendment is certainly an improvement. Now the government will only target those convicted while receiving aid, and it will allow first- and second-time offenders a reduced suspension period. Although the changes reduce the scope of their burden, the law still discriminates against low-income students.

Americans who rely on federal financial aid to attend college will deal with an unnecessary burden despite having already faced the legal consequences of their actions. The government’s goal should be to encourage all citizens to pursue higher education, but this bill punishes those who are trying to do so. The nonprofit organization Students for a Sensible Drug Policy estimates that since the federal government provision went into effect eight years ago, more than 175,000 students have been denied aid. Even one year without need-based financial aid could make the difference between continuing in college and dropping out.

Legislators may still be clinging to this flawed policy with the hope that suspending financial aid for drug offenders could be the magical incentive needed to finally win the so-called war on drugs. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggests otherwise – it was “unable to find conclusive research” that the restriction deters future drug use.

While loosening the knot between financial aid and drug convictions signals the start of a more reasonable policy, it is necessary to eliminate this connection altogether. Taking away financial aid from a student because of a drug conviction adds a financial punishment to those who have taken the initiative to seek higher education.

Denying low-income students convicted of a drug offense access to higher education is counterproductive and discriminatory — even if the offense is committed while in college. Congress’s amendment to the Higher Education Act’s drug provision is an important, but unfinished, improvement to the federal government’s overly punitive drug policy.

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