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Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) are introducing legislation that would repeal a federal law that denies higher education financial aid to students convicted of a drug law violation while they are receiving student aid. Advocates point out that this student aid policy is another unfair and counterproductive example of the numerous collateral consequences that follow a drug law conviction and needlessly complicate the lives of people who are trying to recover from the twin challenges of criminalization and addiction. Communities of color are also more likely to be impacted by this student aid policy in the same way that communities of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for drug law violations. A diverse coalition comprised of several hundred education, treatment, civil rights, religious, and criminal justice reform groups have advocated for the repeal of this policy since it took effect in 2000.

“It’s outrageous that hundreds of thousands of young people have been denied an opportunity at higher education over a drug law violation,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “This harms all but the most privileged students, and runs completely counter to the national consensus that drug use should be treated as a health issue. It especially harms communities of color, who are disproportionately targeted for drug law violations, and perpetuates stigma against people who use drugs. This corrosive drug war policy is long overdue for repeal.”

Individuals who apply for federal student aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are asked if they have been convicted of a drug law violation while they were receiving federal student aid. Individuals who answer “yes” must complete a confusing worksheet to determine further eligibility for student aid. An unknown number of students may stop applying given the confusing multi-step process that must follow even though they may still be eligible for aid, or simply give up on applying for student aid after seeing the question on the FAFSA. Many more students are ultimately denied student aid after answering “yes” on the FAFSA.

The length of time that a student can be ineligible depends upon the severity of the conviction and can range from one year of lost aid to an indefinite suspension. Students who lose aid can restore it by completing an “approved” drug rehabilitation program or passing two random drug tests. Advocates point out that these programs are costly and time consuming and can force students who were otherwise enrolled in classes to drop out of school. Since 2000, more than 200,000 students have been denied financial aid to enroll in higher education because of this policy.

Date Published: February 11, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

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