During the “get tough on drug crimes” era that began in the 1980s, Congress passed a number of ill-advised laws to expand the consequences of drug crime convictions. Congress has continued to pass those laws despite the absence of evidence that they serve any purpose.

Some federal laws deny or restrict federal benefits, including student loan eligibility, for individuals convicted of certain drug crimes. The laws have been justly criticized for singling out drug crimes when more harmful crimes do not result in the same harsh consequences.

Student Loans

The Higher Education Act makes students ineligible to continue receiving federally-assisted student loans if, while enrolled in an educational program for which they have received federal financial assistance, they are convicted of a crime involving the possession or distribution of illicit drugs. The law applies to:

  • Federal Pell grants
  • Federal Stafford loans
  • Federal PLUS loans
  • Federal work-study
  • Perkins loans

For conviction of simple possession, the period of ineligibility is:

  • For a first conviction, 1 year
  • For a second conviction, 2 years
  • For a third conviction, indefinite

For conviction of a distribution-related offense, the period of ineligibility is:

  • For a first conviction, 2 years
  • For a second conviction, indefinite

The law applies to convictions of crimes, not to ordinance violations (tickets). A deferred prosecution or other disposition that does not result in an actual conviction will not make a student ineligible for federally assisted student loans. Convictions that occur during periods of non-enrollment do not count. Successful completion of a drug rehabilitation program can restore eligibility in certain instances. In addition, passing two unannounced drug tests can restore eligibility in certain instances.

TANF and SNAP Programs

The TANF program provides cash assistance and other support to low-income families with children. The SNAP program, formerly known as “Food Stamps,” makes food available to some low-income and elderly individuals, as well as to some disabled individuals. A statutory “drug felon ban” applicable to both programs prevents states from providing assistance to individuals who have been convicted of a drug-related felony. The ban also applies to “fleeing felons,” individuals who have been charged with drug felonies but are considered fugitives.

The law permits states to “opt out” of the drug felon ban or to modify its terms through state legislation. Many states have done that. The federal ban applies to direct cash payments but not to child care subsidies, tax credits, or job subsidies.

Whether a felony drug conviction will render you ineligible for aid under TANF or SNAP depends on the nature of your conviction and the state in which you live. Texas is one of eleven states that maintain a lifetime disqualification for felony drug convictions.

A controversial provision of the law that applies to TANF allows states to drug-test recipients. Whether states can test all recipients or only those who are reasonably suspected of illicit drug use remains an unresolved issue. States are generally not permitted to drug test to determine eligibility for SNAP, although exceptions to that rule apply under limited circumstances.

Housing Assistance Programs

Housing assistance programs make housing available to eligible individuals and families, either in the form of public housing or by subsidizing rent payments through the Section 8 voucher program and the Section 8 rental assistance program. Housing assistance programs are not subject to the “drug felon ban” but federal laws do permit local program administrators to deny or terminate assistance to individuals convicted (and, under certain circumstances, suspected) of involvement in drug crimes.

Those laws tend to be confusing and contradictory. Whether they apply to any particular tenant generally depends on the kind of housing assistance the tenant is seeking and the state in which the tenant lives.

Federal housing assistance laws impose mandatory bans on persons convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine, although that ban does not apply to project-based section 8 housing. Drug testing is not required by federal law, but several public housing authorities require drug testing of some or all prospective tenants.

The rules for public housing have been particularly harsh since 1996, when HUD implemented a “one strike and you’re out” eviction policy. The ridiculous consequences of that law are illustrated by a 2002 Supreme Court decision that upheld the eviction of grandparents because their grandchild, without their knowledge, was caught smoking marijuana in the housing project parking lot. The same decision upheld the eviction of a 75-year-old man whose live-in caretaker possessed cocaine without his knowledge or consent.

Other Federal Benefits

A drug conviction can have an impact on other federal benefits programs. These include:

  • Loss of eligibility for agricultural benefits provided by the USDA
  • Loss of eligibility for certain HEA benefits
  • Loss of commercial driving privileges
  • Denial of merchant mariner’s document or merchant seaman’s license
  • Termination of participation in, or ineligibility for, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and certain other federal programs
  • Debarment from certain government contracts
  • Ineligibility for or loss of federal grants
  • Ineligibility for or loss of small business loans
  • Termination of certain federal employment or federally funded employment pursuant to “Drug Free Workplace” laws
  • Loss of eligibility for certain federally regulated jobs (including child care employment, jobs at airports and railways, and providing security to federal installations)
  • Loss of certain veterans’ benefits
  • Loss of or ineligibility for certain federal licenses or permits (such as a license to export explosives or to manufacture or export tobacco or alcohol)
  • Loss of eligibility for certain surety bonds
  • Ineligibility for representation by the Legal Services Corporation
  • Ineligibility to exempt certain property in bankruptcy

This is not a complete list. The laws and regulations governing the consequences of drug convictions are constantly changing. If you have specific concerns about the impact a drug conviction will have on your life, you should seek legal advice.