All the Kids Are Doing It! Should getting high keep you out of higher ed?

Many of us are familiar with the nightmare that is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form used by the federal government to determine a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid to help pay for college. Depending on your circumstance, you may or may not have paid any special attention to Question 23, which reads:

Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, work-study, or loans)?

This question has been the subject of much debate since it was introduced 20 years ago, and it has impacted thousands of students’ capacity to pay their college tuition in this country.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) was enacted in 1965 to “… expand postsecondary education opportunities, particularly for low-income individuals, and to increase the affordability of postsecondary education for moderate-income families.” The federal assistance was made available to students in the form of work-study opportunities, grants like the Pell Grant and federal student loans. It was not until 1998 that the Aid Elimination Penalty, also known as the Drug Provision, was added to the HEA. The provision makes students with any type of drug conviction, including misdemeanor possession of marijuana, ineligible for any type of federal financial aid money, including loans and work-study.

The ramifications of this new policy were quickly made evident. According to the 2005 Government Accountability Office report, more than 41,000 students were denied financial aid in the 2003-04 school year because of drug-related offenses. Of those, 29,000 would have been otherwise eligible for federal student loans and 18,000 would have been eligible for Pell Grants. Since then, more than 1,000 students a year have lost full or partial financial aid eligibility because of a drug conviction, and many more don’t apply for aid at the risk of being rejected.

This law disproportionately affects low-income students of color who, due to the racist enforcement of drug laws, are the most likely to have encountered the criminal justice system. The law does not deny eligibility to students with other types of criminal convictions (yes, even murder), and does nothing to address the disparities between states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession and those that still treat it as a criminal offense. The law effectively punishes students a second time for a crime they’ve already paid for. It is neither a deterrent nor a rehabilitative measure, and only hurts those who need financial aid most.

In 2006, the Aid Elimination Penalty was scaled back to apply only to offenses committed while in school and receiving Title IV aid, and students may now resume eligibility if they complete an approved drug rehabilitation program. Unfortunately, the law does not allocate funding for that rehab, and it is absurd to think that students who can’t afford college could afford expensive rehabilitation programs or take the time off from work to attend.

To be fair, Question 23 has evolved considerably over the past 20 years, and now attempts to better inform students about eligibility requirements, but the scope of the provision is still not clear to those filling out the FAFSA. In 2017, the American Bar Association made a resolution urging congress to repeal restrictions on federal financial aid eligibility for students with drug convictions, to revise the FAFSA to eliminate the question and to notify students who were deemed ineligible of the changes to the form. The alternatives to this problematic provision of the HEA are actually quite simple: eliminate the question, at least for first time applicants, and do a better job of  expanding opportunities for low-income students to access higher education.

Recent legislation like the Second Chance Pell Program and the Aim Higher Act are examples of what can be done to encourage incarcerated individuals and those with drug convictions to pursue higher education, but it will take political willpower and public support for these measures to succeed. The HEA is coming up for reauthorization soon, and one can only hope that it continues to be improved over time and can better achieve what it was intended to do: help kids in need to get the education that they deserve.

Cannabis Competition Sparked in Wakefield at the Cultivators Cup


If you’re a medical marijuana patient with no plans this weekend, head on down to Wakefield for the first-ever Cultivators Cup, presented this Saturday, August 18, from 1 – 7pm at the Tetra Hydro Club. Hosted by theFarmacist and billed as “the nation’s first ever state-regulated cannabis competition,” the contest will bring nine of Rhode Island’s medical marijuana cultivators together to see whose product is really top-shelf. Even better, as a result of a new policy that allows medical marijuana reciprocity in Rhode Island, any patient from any state with a valid medical marijuana license can attend the event, or even participate as a judge!

For an fitting $420, cannabis connoisseurs were invited to purchase one of 100 judge’s kits, sold exclusively at Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth. Each kit comes with a sampling of 28 strains from the competing cultivators, two admission tickets and an event t-shirt. Judges were asked to take the kits home to judge the entries, all grown exclusively by Rhode Island licensed cultivation facilities, and to bring their assessments to the event on Saturday. Although the judge’s kits have already sold out, don’t worry if you missed your chance — many of the strains can still be found in local dispensaries.

General admission tickets to the event are still available for licensed medical marijuana patients from any state. More than a dozen sponsors will be featured, including MoodMats, East Coast Labs, Mammoth Microbes and CleanLeaf Air, who will provide air filtration for the event. A performance by the local reggae favorites The Mintones will cap off the celebration, so whether traveling from near or far, this event is sure to be worth the journey!

California, Criminal Justice, and Ensuring Equity in the Cannabis Industry


The cannabis industry is estimated to provide a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, but who will benefit from those jobs can be determined by the efforts, or lack thereof, on the part of regulators to ensure that the cannabis industry is inclusive and equitable for all. As cannabis is federally illegal (for now), state and local governments are the gatekeepers of the industry, and most state regulations prohibit persons with criminal convictions from participating. Likely in an effort to legitimize the industry and prevent potential illicit sales, this type of policy ends up harming individuals as well as the industry to which they hope to contribute. In contrast, we can look to examples of cannabis regulations in Oakland, Calif, and elsewhere that have been carefully crafted to try to make a positive impact on both the industry and the community.

The War on Drugs and corresponding institutional racism has not only impacted modern-day policing and the criminal justice system. These same patterns have contributed to the demographics of the nascent cannabis industry: overwhelmingly white and dominated by wealthy male entrepreneurs, most of whom have likely not been entangled in the criminal justice system or the negative impacts that come along with a felony conviction.

Put simply, US drug policies first forced the cultivation and distribution of marijuana underground, then jailed people of color for participating in the black market (and the violence that is inherent to any underground market), and then turned around and excluded those same people from participating in the now legal cannabis industry. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of reasons why rich white men dominate virtually every industry, and there are plenty of people who are incarcerated for legitimate reasons, but there is a cruel irony in the way that many state and local regulators have perpetuated the marginalization of people of color through their cannabis policies.

The good news is that legal cannabis is an industry born out of grassroots activism, and there are a lot of people working hard to make sure that it can be an industry that prioritizes equity and accountability for all stakeholders. A great example of these efforts can be found in California’s Proposition 64, as well as in the local regulations adopted by the city of Oakland.

California makes up the world’s fifth largest economy and has long been home to one of the largest and most loosely regulated medical marijuana programs, so it was exceedingly important to craft regulations that would reflect the impact that the California cannabis industry is sure to have. Reflecting this, “Proposition 64 did a number of things to try and increase inclusion and diversity in the market, including having many different categories and sizes for licensure, scaled licensing fees, not allowing prior drug conviction exclusions from licensure, record expungement, and community investment,” says Tamar Todd of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), an organization that was hugely instrumental in creating the regulations.

Despite decriminalization of marijuana use, more than 6,500 people were incarcerated in 2015 for nonviolent marijuana offenses in California. Since Prop 64 went into effect, almost 5,000 people have applied for resentencing or conviction redesignation, but according to the Judicial Council of California, several hundred thousand to one million Californians could be positively affected by this policy.

In Oakland, “The data shows that for over two decades, black and brown residents were arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses at disparately high rates, while largely white cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and distributors…flourished under changing laws designed to accommodate the burgeoning industry,” according to City of Oakland Race and Equity Director Darlene Flynn. In response, the city has implemented an equity permit program, through which half of all cannabis business licenses must go to minorities targeted by drug war. Additionally, the city is earmarking $3.4 million in cannabis business license tax revenue to offer no-interest loans and other assistance to help equity permit holders open for business.

California shouldn’t and won’t be the only state to attempt to repair some of the harms of the War on Drugs through cannabis regulation. Closer to home, Massachusetts has passed legislation to give priority review to license applicants in communities that have been disproportionately affected by former marijuana laws, if at least 51% of employees have a prior drug-related conviction. This type of policy allows employers to support formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society, and allows those with prior convictions to lend their specialized knowledge to a legal business.

None of these progressive policies would be possible without the help of activists, whose efforts to seat themselves at the regulating table will surely result in a more equitable industry for all. The bar has officially been raised, and as more states and localities find themselves tasked with regulating marijuana, they have no excuse not to follow these examples. I’m looking at you, Rhode Island legislature!


When Show Biz Meets CannaBiz

Willie_Nelson_at_Farm_Aid_2009bw Snoop_crop Melissa_Etheridge_Live

It is not news that celebrity sells, and famous folk have been using their fame to sell us products for ages. It is only recently, however, that stars have been getting involved in the nascent cannabis industry as investors, entrepreneurs and advocates. There seem to be more celebrity canna-brands popping up every day, and here are the stories of three artists who have embraced the business opportunities that cannabis legalization has presented.

Willie Nelson has been expressing his love for cannabis since long before it was socially acceptable. Now his “premium cannabis lifestyle brand,” Willie’s Reserve, which is available in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington and is soon to be releasing sun-grown products, is so mainstream that it will even be one of the sponsors for this year’s official Newport Folk Festival after-shows. A recent round of funding raised $12 million, making the company worth $30 million and cementing Willie’s role as an entrepreneur and advocate for legalization. At 83 years old, Willie remains a clear voice for the cannabis community.

Snoop Dogg’s name also has been synonymous with marijuana for decades. The music mogul was quick to capitalize on the burgeoning cannabis industry when he created Leafs by Snoop in 2015, making him the first well-known celebrity to launch a self-branded line of cannabis products. A year later, he created a venture capital fund, Casa Verde Capital, which has raised $45 million thus far and is dedicated to the ancillary businesses associated with the industry. Snoop’s entrepreneurial savvy continued to be ahead of the curve as Leafs by Snoop became one of the first international licensing agreements under the Canopy Growth Corp, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world. Based in Ontario, Canada, Canopy Growth Corp was the first federally regulated and publicly traded cannabis producer in North America, and is likely to dominate the Canadian industry for years to come. Snoop has also invested $10 million in the British cannabis research firm Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies (along with fellow celebrity Patrick Stewart), which focuses on research related to medical uses of the plant.

Unlike Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, Melissa Etheridge has not always been known for her relationship with marijuana. In fact, she didn’t even start using cannabis regularly until she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 43 years old. From that point forward, she became an influential advocate for the benefits of medical marijuana, as well as an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry. Her company, Etheridge Farms, is located in California and produces sun-grown cannabis products in the form of flower, edibles, oil cartridges, topicals and even a wine tincture. But for Etheridge, it’s always been about more than the money. Much like her experience as an advocate for the LGBT community, she uses her platform to promote the rights of medical marijuana users everywhere, whether they are cancer patients going through chemotherapy or professional athletes dealing with pain. As a football fan, she supports the players’ right to use cannabis, and was even a moderator at a panel on the topic at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition.

These celebrities are more than just cannabis enthusiasts or business investors. They are an important part of the movement to make the cannabis industry one that is authentic, diverse and well-intentioned. One thing is for sure: It will be an exciting day when these products are finally available on Rhode Island shelves.