Congress Poised to Restore Drug War Victims’ Federal Student Aid Eligibility

    Lawmakers have greenlit a massive COVID-19 relief bill containing a provision that would end a two-decade-long practice of blocking on students with drug convictions from receiving federal assistance for their higher education.

    On December 21, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, making the end of a punitive restriction just a presidential signature away. President Donald Trump, however, is opposing the legislation in its current form and suggesting he won’t provided the signature required to make it law unless the COVID-19 stimulus check amount is raised from $600 to $2,000. 

    The bill would mean an end to the Aid Elimination Penalty, a product of a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act that renders students convicted of drug offenses ineligible for assistance unless they first complete a rehabilitation program and pass two unannounced drug tests. In 2006, Congress changed the penalty so that only students already receiving aid when convicted would become ineligible from receiving future aid.

    If the bill passes, students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will no longer face what’s currently the 23rd question: Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid?

    Advocates are hailing the importance of this quiet policy change. “Congress imposed these restrictions during the 1990s escalation of the drug war and tough-on-crime era, and in the years since, thousands of students who rely on federal aid have been denied educational opportunities increasingly essential to successful employment,” said Grant Smith, the national affairs deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance*, in a press release. “Studies have confirmed time and again that these policies harm a person’s ability to successfully transition back into their communities and deny them the basic human right to learn and improve their quality of life.”

    The bill comes after years of unsuccessful attempts at reforming the FAFSA. In 2019, one House bill removing the provision with the drug-conviction question was introduced and reviewed by committee. Earlier that year, former Democratic presidential candidates senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced another bill making the same cut, one previously introduced by Booker in 2018. House Representatives had introduced a different bill with similar provisions in 2017. None made it past their own introduction.

    Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a nonprofit advocacy group, has long pushed for an end to the Aid Elimination Penalty. The group was founded partly as a response to the penalty. In 2004, SSDP requested data from the federal government on the number of applicants denied financial aid because of their answer to the 23rd question. After a legal battle, the Department of Education revealed that 190,000 students had been turned down since the penalty’s enactment to September 2005. The figure was released in 2006, shortly after SSDP, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, brought an ultimately unsuccessful class-action lawsuit against the Education Department based on the penalty’s alleged constitutional violations.

    “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,” Rachel Wissner, SSDP co-interim executive, told Marijuana Moment. “We celebrate that Congress has finally accepted that a drug conviction does not mean that someone should be denied access to higher education.”

    Other notable reforms in the bill include restoring incarcerated students’ Pell Grant eligibility; removing financial aid barriers for unhoused students; and maintaining the the Department of Justice cannot use funds to prosecute state medical cannabis programs (though that wasn’t applied to programs for adult use). Among its shortcomings, a prohibition on federal funds being spent on “any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance in Schedule I,” as well as a failure to include protections for banks serving cannabis businesses.



    DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    Photograph of the US Capitol building by the House of Representatives Press Gallery via public domain

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