The devastating impact of the War on Drugs extends to higher education, as students caught with pot face losing out on federal financial aid and often, consequently, on an education. Drug offenses are the only crimes that must be reported on federal student-aid applications, and that’s unlikely to change under a new administration laden with drug warriors.
Christy Billett could be the poster child for exposing the enduring perniciousness of the Drug War’s attack on American college students. Her story also stands as a stark warning about what many students may face under the Trump administration with an Education Department headed by Betsy DeVos and a Justice Department led by Jeff Sessions.
Back in 2000, Billett—then a working-class young woman of 18—was a few courses shy of completing her associate’s degree at DuBois Business College in rural Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where she was enrolled in a program that would have made her a medical-transcription administrator. But she found herself entrapped in a sting by a friend’s father, a man with cancer who had asked his son to find him a source of marijuana to ease his pain. Billett, who had some pot and occasionally sold some, offered to sell him two ounces, but it turned out he was setting her up. While closing the deal, Billett was arrested and, without an attorney, agreed to make a statement to police. She subsequently hired a lawyer who managed to get the court to change her plea to “no contest,” but the damage was done. A convicted drug felon under Pennsylvania law, when Billett filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in January 2001 to cover her final semester’s tuition, she discovered that she was permanently banned from receiving any federal tuition grants or student loans.
Now 36, married and with three kids, Billett says that her once-bright dreams of a career in the health-care field are gone. “I could have gone back to school after they changed the aid ban in 2006,” she says, referring to a congressional reform that reduced the permanent ban for people convicted of selling small amounts of pot to “just” a two-year ban, and the ban on possession to one year. “But my life had moved on. And besides, I am still a convicted felon, which makes getting a job hard. I basically live off my husband’s income.”
Billett isn’t alone. Since Congress passed a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act adding the deplorable Question 23 to FAFSA, hundreds of thousands of students have lost over $200 million in federal tuition aid. That question is: “Have you ever been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs?” Answering “yes” meant that you were permanently barred from receiving federal grants or even federally insured student loans for college, while answering “no” if you did have a drug conviction meant risking prosecution for defrauding the government—a federal offense carrying a fine of up to $20,000 and five years in prison. Most of those barred from receiving aid, like Billett, were already enrolled in college but found themselves unable to finish school and earn their degrees.
Things improved considerably in 2006, when Congress finally acted to modify the ban. Instead of a permanent ban on tuition aid for any drug conviction, now students are at risk only if they’re arrested while actually registered in school and already receiving federal aid. Then they face a one-year ban on aid if the arrest is for marijuana possession, and a two-year ban for selling it. A second possession bust while in school means a two-year ban on aid, and a third conviction makes the ban permanent—but there are also options to get the ban waived by completing an approved rehab program and passing two unannounced drug tests.
However, even under the program’s eased rules, students continue to get barred from receiving financial aid. As Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach at American Student Assistance, explains: “A few thousand students got busted each year even after 2006—and even under the Obama administration, it’s been over 1,100 a year who end up losing their aid.” She explains that the law hits poor students and minorities the hardest, since they’re more likely to be arrested and often don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, leaving them at the mercy of police, prosecutors and judges. Meanwhile, the number of students losing their aid because of a drug conviction tells only part—perhaps a very small part—of the story. As Mayotte explains, “Nobody knows how many young people are not going to college because, when they start to fill out a FAFSA form to get tuition assistance and come to Question 23, if they have a drug record, they just mistakenly assume they aren’t eligible to get aid and give up on going.”
Efforts to obtain such data, as well as information about current and future policy on the student-aid ban, hit a brick wall at the Education Department, now headed by Christian activist and charter-school promoter Betsy DeVos. High Times sent a list of questions to the department’s press office—from the number of students currently banned from getting aid, to simple policy questions like whether a ban can be lifted once a student enrolls in an approved rehab program or whether it must be completed first. After two weeks of promising to supply the answers, press officer Jim Bradshaw sent the following e-mail to High Times:
We checked on your questions about federal student aid and here is what we can tell you. On background, not for quotation by name but attributed to “The US Department of Education” or an “Education Department spokesman”: “The Department does not have any comment at this time.”
Betty Aldworth is the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization that has been at the forefront of efforts to end the prohibitionists’ attack on student aid for those convicted of drug offenses. She notes that only drug convictions must be reported on the FAFSA form. (Convictions for coercive sex crimes are also supposed to prevent a student from receiving federal tuition assistance—but unlike with drug convictions, there is no requirement to report them on the FAFSA form.)
Incredibly, convictions for violent offenses—everything from breaking and entering to assault with a deadly weapon or even murder—do not prevent a person from receiving federal tuition assistance. In fact, although prisoners serving time in state or federal prison cannot receive federal loans or Pell Grants while behind bars, they are eligible for assistance if they’re in a county or municipal lock-up or a halfway house. All become eligible for aid once released from prison, even if they’re on parole—unless, of course, the conviction was for a drug-related offense.
Aldworth is concerned that after years of fairly relaxed enforcement of the aid ban—during the Obama administration, the Education Department appears not to have run any spot checks of those who answered “no” on Question 23 against criminal-conviction records—the Education Department under Trump could “start doing stricter enforcement of the drug ban again.”
Whatever DeVos’s views on banning student loans—she hasn’t said much on the issue, nor was she asked about it during her truncated Senate confirmation hearing—Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is known to be an uncompromising opponent of marijuana use. The former Alabama senator, who believes that cannabis is “only slightly less awful than heroin,” reportedly once said that he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out that they smoked pot” and, more recently, during a Senate drug hearing in April 2016, proclaimed, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Sessions has made it clear that he intends to re-energize the discredited War on Drugs, including marijuana. In a recent memo to Justice Department prosecutors, Sessions said that he would be issuing new instructions requiring them to seek the maximum charge in any case—a reversal of a 2010 instruction from former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder that allowed prosecutors to avoid higher charges and minimum-sentencing requirements, in part by not including the quantity of drugs confiscated during an arrest in the charges. As Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman told Politico, “Holder said you don’t have to charge mandatory minimums” in drug-arrest cases—but under AG Sessions, “it looks like they’re going to say, ‘Oh, yes, you do have to.’”
A year ago, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Robert Casey (D-PA) teamed up in a bipartisan attempt to insert an amendment into the Higher Education Act eliminating Question 23 from the FAFSA form, but the measure died when the Senate failed to even vote on the HEA. Most politicians contacted said that given the Trump administration’s focus on issues like immigration, ending the Affordable Care Act and cobbling together a replacement for it, and tackling campaign promises like an infrastructure bill and increased military spending, it’s unlikely that any effort to remove Question 23 would get very far in the current Congress. It’s also unclear what the mercurial Trump’s position would be on it.
Certainly his nomination of Sessions appears to be an endorsement of a harder line on drugs, including pot. Meanwhile, just word that the Trump administration is reviving the Drug War, and fears that the Education Department could become more aggressive in enforcing the ban on student aid for those convicted of drug crimes, is likely to make colleges and universities stricter in enforcing both state and local drug laws as well as university sanctions against students busted for drug use or sales.
Consider Pennsylvania State University, one of the country’s biggest public higher-education institutions. Although State College, the small town where Penn State is located, recently decriminalized marijuana possession, the university—which has its own much larger state-sworn campus police force—has instructed its officers to charge students busted for cannabis with a misdemeanor, and to refer their cases to the Centre County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
The justification for this harsh approach was explained as follows in a note sent to High Times by a university spokesman:
As a public university, Penn State must follow federal law or the University could risk losing all federal funding. Federal law still considers marijuana use and possession a misdemeanor.
Following state and federal law, university police will charge individuals who violate the law. Whether they lose their aid is not something I can confirm, because every situation and police encounter is fact-specific to that case and there are a number of factors that trigger the loss of aid—beyond our control.
Police make arrests and refer cases to the prosecutor’s office, which ultimately decides to charge an individual or to not bring charges in the case.
In practice, the county DA generally says it offers arrested students—most of them middle-class white kids—a chance to enter an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) involving one year of probation and expungement of the arrest record if no further arrests have occurred during that period. But neither the DA’s office nor Penn State could provide any information on how many students caught up in campus pot busts had received ARDs or how many Penn State students have lost their aid because of arrests. ARDs are not offered to students arrested for selling drugs on campus, only for possession charges.
Betty Aldworth finds college crackdowns on weed use understandable if ill-considered. “It’s a pressure point for the Department of Education,” she explains. “The text of the Higher Education Act says universities have to have rules against possession or the use of drugs on campus. It doesn’t say what those rules must be, but schools are terrified about losing their loan allocations.”
For her part, drug-ban victim Christy Billett, while unable to find a good job thanks to her felony record, has been fighting back by trying to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania. She founded and is executive director of Pennsylvanians for Safe Access (pasafeaccess.com), which advocates the right of anyone in the state to grow marijuana for personal use. Her site was instrumental in getting the state’s Republican-run legislature to legalize medical cannabis last year.
Dave Lindorff is an award-winning veteran investigative journalist based in Philadelphia. The author of four books, a former Business Week China/Hong Kong correspondent and contributor to many magazines, he is also the founder of the collectively run journalist website This Can’t Be Happening!