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How the “war on drugs” cost hundreds of thousands of Americans a chance at student loan relief

President Joe Biden’s Student Loan Debt Relief Plan has sparked a number of debates and conversations about how the outcome will impact different factions of borrowers.

Now, one analysis is shedding light on how the U.S. government’s ongoing war on drugs could subsequently have negative impacts on some borrowers’ abilities to have student debt forgiven.

“As part of the ‘war on drugs’ — a consequential, anti-crime legislative agenda that Biden championed as a U.S. senator — an estimated hundreds of thousands of convicted drug offenders had their access to federal financial aid delayed or denied, including Pell Grants and student loans,” WUSA9 reported on Tuesday. “If they wanted to go to college after their prison terms ended, these offenders had to take on larger, often predatory, private student loans.”

The report highlighted how the war on drugs has also impacted many students’ ability to obtain education due to federal requirements for drug record disclosure.

“Some were discouraged from seeking federal aid by a requirement to disclose their drug record on financial aid applications, while others put off attending college or dropped out entirely,” the DC CBS News affiliate revealed.

Because of the war on drugs’ disproportionate impact on underserved segments of the American population, many have been left behind.

“The people most harmed by these policies: Black and Latino men, thanks to drug laws in the 1990s with harsh punishments for crack cocaine and marijuana offenses,” WUSA9’s analysis found. “Incarceration rates for men of color skyrocketed. The policies remained in place for 25 years, until Congress repealed the Pell Grant ban in 2020.”

“Studies show that Pell Grants — one of the nation’s most effective financial aid programs — routinely help more than half of Black students and almost half of Hispanic students afford college,” WUSA9 added. “According to the White House, among the 43 million borrowers who are eligible for debt relief under Biden’s plan, more than 60% are Pell Grant recipients.”

While Biden’s student loan relief program will indeed help a substantial number of borrowers, criminal justice reform advocates have begun to argue otherwise. In fact, WUSA9 noted, some believe that “the president’s solutions to the student debt crisis must be as comprehensive as the anti-drug laws were.”

Melissa Moore, the Drug Policy Alliance’s civil systems reform director, weighed in with her perspective.

“I think there’s a particular onus on this administration and on this president to be part of the solution for issues that he was very deeply involved in,” said Moore. “For people who previously would have had to check that box, there should be some mechanism by which, if you were excluded in the past, you are prioritized now for relief.”

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