Explanatory Story: A Proposed Act, Financial Aid and the Convicted

By Steven Bonifazi Jr.

BOULDER, COLORADO — When Rutgers University criminal justice professor, Sarah Esther Lageson, began her research project through a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice, she never would have guessed evaluating and clearing criminal records would result in affecting financial aid claims, but then the Marijuana Justice Act was introduced. U.S. Senator Cory Booker introduced the act in 2017, aiming to remove marijuana-related convictions from criminal records. Lageson is a firm believer in second chances and the Marajuana Justice Act provides second chances to U.S. citizens: “If marijuana possession is legal, the state has an obligation to clear the convictions for people that have that in their record.” 

Lageson has an extensive history of research in employment and criminal records. According to her, up until 1964, cannabis had yet to see much effort in reform and decriminalization. According to a UC Santa Cruz Theses and Dissertation written by Thomas Reed Heddleston titled From the Frontlines to the Bottom Line: Medical Marijuana, the War on Drugs, and the Drug Policy Reform Movement, it was in December of 1964 when attorney James R. White founded the first U.S. organization committed to decriminalizing cannabis and ending prohibition: LEMAR (combined abbreviations of LEgalize MARijuana). In the late 1970s, Nebraska made it so that cannabis was simply a civil infraction for first-time offenders. Currently, in the state of Colorado, criminal justice attorneys like Jeff Wolf focus on sealing marijuana-related convictions rather than expunging them. Sealing a charge involves putting the offense in a lockbox and hiding it from public view whereas expunging removes the charge completely. According to Wolf, “drug charges have always had a sealing component to them. Sealing a case under state law is not going to keep the government from seeing it.” The 2017 Marijuana Justice Act failed to make it past the Senate. It is too early to tell whether or not the Act will pass, with it still in progress and just recently being reintroduced on February 28th of 2019 by Senator Cory Booker. Nevertheless. Some GOP leaders support the act. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner made a promise to deny all Department of Justice nominations which resulted in President Trump agreeing and supporting attempts to protect states where marijuana is currently legal according to a CNBC article. Also, in early April of 2019, Representative Doug Collins, one of the highest-ranking congressman on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter urging Democrats to pass legislation that would deny the federal government from imposing prohibition on states that have legal marijauana. 

Although the Marijuana Justice Act has the potential to alter the eligibility of many different opportunities for people convicted such as housing, employment and financial aid, there are other measures being taken to give people like Jean Crawford another chance at a better life. Crawford was arrested in 2010 in Irvington, NJ, pleading guilty to six charges, one of them being drug possession. Crawford, age 29 at the time of the conviction, received two years of probation which he served. Regardless, the conviction still affected Crawford even after his probation had ended, denying him access to basic opportunities such as low-level employment and access to financial aid to continue his education. Nevertheless, even if marijuana-related convictions can be cleared from criminal records, the internet never forgets. Criminal records today are not only government records but they can easily be found through Facebook, Twitter, or a Google search. Lageson says that “once your record is expunged, it is still available on the internet, so we have to think carefully about how Google has the leverage to be forgotten.”.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit organization determined to put an end to the dangers of drug use and prohibition, states that over 200,000 students have lost eligibility for financial aid due to drug convictions since the war on drugs began in the 1970s. A Cannabis website states that the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 aims to decriminalize the plant, making it legal federally and removing it from the list of schedule 1 substances. Furthermore, it will expunge existing marijauan-related convictions federally. Schedule 1 substances are any drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the DEA. A few drugs that currently accompany marijuana on the Schedule 1 list are heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote. The Act is a re-issued, new version of the 2018 Act, that focuses on amending the Controlled Substance Act in order to have a new rule in regard to the application process of the Act to marijuana according to Congress

Drug convictions frequently result in fines, community service and even jail time in some cases. For others, it denies them access to receiving financial assistance in the hopes of pursuing a college degree. In December 1999, Ohio State University freshman Russell Selkirk was convicted guilty of smoking marijuana in a vehicle. That same year, Selkirk was also faced with the loss of eligibility for educational loans and grants from the federal government. Ohio State University’s policies on drug convictions affecting financial aid eligibility are simple and common among other universities— a conviction results in full ineligibility. Many students today find themselves in the same situation as Selkirk did in 1999. However, the passing of the Marijuana Justice Act could change everything.

After receiving her PhD in sociology at the University of Minnesota in 2015, Lageson began her teaching career in New Brunswick, New Jersey at Rutgers University where she now teaches criminal justice policies, research methods and constitutional issues in criminal justice. Lageson’s research project consists of a study of one hundred people in New Jersey and one hundred people in Minnesota. Each participant provides their fingerprint through the state accompanied by a copy of their full criminal record, including marijuana-related convictions. These participants “come meet with us and go through it and we treat it like a medical record rather than a credit report,” said Lageson. Lageson inspects the criminal records, looking for any errors, mistakes or incomplete information that can be corrected. The main point of this research project is the evaluation of the process of people’s criminal records in New Jersey. Lageson has participants work with lawyers directly while she tracks exactly what their expungement process is and what outcomes unfold from each case.

Edvisors, a group of websites with helpful information for families and students planning out college, states that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, was first introduced through the Higher Education Act of 1965 as an effort to provide students financial assistance in order to increase enrollment. When a FAFSA application is filled out and submitted by a student, the federal government decides the student’s eligibility for financial aid. A few of the eligibility requirements required for federal student aid include US citizenship, registration with the selective service for all men, and an evident need for financial assistance. 

One component that is currently affecting many prospective and current student’s eligibility for receiving federal financial aid is drug convictions. The U.S. Department of Education states that if a student is convicted of a drug-related crime while they are receiving financial aid, the student’s eligibility for said aid may be suspended. However, eligibility can be regained through the completion of a drug rehabilitation program or the passing of two unannounced and approved drug tests. If a student submits the FAFSA application and receives aid but is later convicted of a marijuana-related charge, the student can be liable to return any financial aid received prior to the conviction. “Even in Colorado where it is legal, it’s not allowed on campus and students can be brought up on convictions,” said Kristi Wold-McCormick, University Registrar at the University of Colorado Boulder. According to financial data site valuepenguin, the average cost of college for the 2017-2018 academic year was $20,770 for in-state tuition at a public university. That number does not include out-of state or private institutions, which are significantly more expensive across the board. Another finance site states that 85% of students who go to a four-year college receive some type of aid. Currently, students that apply for federal student aid have to answer questions about prior felony charges such as drug possessions, including marijuana. The Marijuana Justice Act would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act, essentially ending the federal criminalization of it and expunging prior records of criminal charges related to it. However, if passed, academic institutes that work with FAFSA, like colleges, would adhere to the federal government before making any changes to the way they operate within the boundaries of the Marijuana Justice Act. Lou Melucci, Associate Director of the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that “We would wait for guidance from the department of education how to proceed dealing with students that may or may not have been convicted for the definition of a legal drug. We are at their mercy since we abide by the federal application.” Furthermore, under the Act, prospective students with prior convictions will have eligibility for federal financial aid. 

If the Marijuana Justice Act passes, thousands of prospective students will have the chance to receive the financial assistance they need in order to pursue a higher education. “It is the most comprehensive reform bill that has been introduced ever,” said Carly Wolf, State Policies coordinator at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Wolf studied criminal justice at the University of Maryland where she found an interest in marijuana as a criminal justice issue through a drug class called “Drugs and Crime.” In this class, Wolf learned about the costs and benefits of the legalization of marijuana in society. A few important costs and benefits range from high economic impact through job creation, taxation and tourism to increased law enforcement resources used for pursuing other non-marijuana related offenses.  “There is no way to test for impairment, whether it be on the road or in the workplace, leading to arbitrary discrimination of consumers. Sick people have access to a therapeutic medicine that could offer them significant benefits and vulnerable communities (black, poor people) will no longer be criminalized for possessing a plant,” said Wolf. During her final years of college, Wolf interned at NORML and was hired by the non-profit shortly after. 

Washington, D.C.-based NORML was founded in 1970 with the goal of swaying the public opinion of marijuana in order to legalize the plant. Today, efforts by individuals like Wolf are aimed toward providing opportunities to all those convicted on marijauna-related charges who deserve another shot.  “There are hundreds of thousands of people across the country that have these convictions that result in so many collateral consequences: loss of financial aid, federal housing, so all these people who have negatively been affected will get a second opportunity to reinvest in society,” said Wolf. 

Today, in states like New Jersey where Lageson works, opening a marijuana dispensary is not an option for anyone with a criminal record. People with marijuana convictions almost have a sort of incentive to get their record expunged considering they are already familiar with the business. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, people like Lageson believe in this Act and hope that if passed, it will not only allow people access to education opportunities but also propel the United States into a more progressive, educated society where the criminal justice system is not so one-sided. Lageson says that she “hopes states keep adopting these laws to give people a second chance. If you just look at empirical research, it is clear that it would be helpful for people to access education.”

Steven Bonifazi Jr. is a Journalism major from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion. 

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