Being convicted of a drug-related offense disqualifies you from state or federal student aid. It doesn’t matter what the charges were or what illegal substance was involved. All drug-related offenses are treated the same here. Even if you have already applied and/or are receiving state or federal student aid, you might be liable for returning any financial aid you received. When you apply with a FAFSA form, you are asked whether you had a drug conviction and could risk other charges if you are dishonest on the form.
The number of students who have lost federal financial aid eligibility because of a drug conviction in 2017: 200,000+
You can regain eligibility early by successfully completing an approved drug rehabilitation program, however, these programs can cost thousands of dollars out of pocket. Other collateral consequences of marijuana conviction become barriers to overcoming this disqualification too. Students with drug-related convictions are denied employment, so paying for a rehabilitation program is difficult, let alone obtaining a living wage. Attending college under these circumstances becomes too far out of reach. If the intention of marijuana prohibition laws is to lead people on a path to reform their lives, we need to recognize Federal marijuana prohibition sets people up for failure.
Michael, age 34, is a permanently disabled U.S. Navy veteran. He was serving in the Navy as a mechanical engineer and due to the stress and extreme working conditions, he just collapsed to the floor one evening. He was rushed by paramedics to Portsmouth Naval Hospital where he was diagnosed with Acute Renal failure. Once he became conscious, he was told by doctor’s that he had the kidney function equivalent to that of an 80-year-old man and that his Navy career was over.
Within hours of hearing this news, he was being sent to surgery to have a hemodialysis catheter implanted to immediately start dialysis the next morning. He spent the next nine months, three times a week, traveling to and from the hospital, receiving dialysis for four hours a day. He was discharged from active duty service and medically retired due to his condition. But, ultimately, Michael still needed a kidney transplant.
His sister donated one of her own kidneys for Michael for which he is forever grateful. “Her contribution saved my life or how I like to say it, she’s a Life Saver… she’s as sweet as candy.”
After receiving the kidney from his sister, Michael felt a feeling of freedom with no longer requiring dialysis, but he also had to adjust to a new way of living that’s required to sustained a foreign organ in his body. He has to take a cocktail of immunosuppressive medications along with steroids for the rest of his life so that his body does not reject the kidney. “The daily consumption of over 30 immunosuppressive medications became as normal as waking up,” said Michael.
Because his immune system is compromised with these medications, he is prone to infections. The medications once caused him to lose vision in his right eye temporarily. More steroids were given to him to help this and the steroids themselves had side effects too. The many side effects from each of the meds he takes include insomnia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle spasms, and migraines. It was often more than Michael could tolerate. He managed to endure this for years because he knew he had no choice but to take the meds that were keeping him alive. He accepted he had to live this low quality of life to live at all.
After years of seeing him suffer with the side effects, A friend suggested he take Cannabis for medical use. “I was reluctant at first to try, but eventually did,” said Michael. Taking cannabis changed his life drastically. “I noticed that symptoms I would normally be facing would be either lessened or in some case nonexistent,” he said. Cannabis allowed him to do things he wanted to do that were not possible before. He could manage his symptoms and look forward to the life ahead of him.
Michael did not want to risk getting black market cannabis that may not be safe in Virginia, so he turned to a family member in a state where cannabis is legal. He traveled seeking a safe source at a dispensary. “They assured me that the medicine from a dispensary would be of a safer quality,” Michael remembered.
After purchasing his cannabis medication, he was stopped and charged for bringing it across state lines into Virginia. He was convicted with felony possession with intent to distribute. Michael was given a suspended sentence of 6 years jail time and 1 year of supervised probation with $6,000 dollars in fines.
Michael has struggled with finding employment with respectable good pay because of his conviction. Yet, he can’t finish his degree in Business because the conviction makes him ineligible for financial aid, so furthering his educational goals is not an option.
Michael continues to try to live his best life after the kidney transplant enduring his symptoms. He says people hear of someone who has survived what he has, and they expect his story to continue as a joyful one, but regrets he can’t tell it that way. He admits, “Unfortunately this story ends with a Retired disabled veteran who was charged and convicted with felony PWID and trafficking…for receiving medication that was saving and ultimately improving the quality of my life.”
He has dreams that go beyond just surviving every day, as any guy in his thirties should have. Michael agrees, “No one should ever be convicted of felony charges for trying to save their own lives.” They also should not have to pay the consequences of offenses for the rest of their life, especially when in the eyes of the Commonwealth, they are reformed.