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Caught with pot? Protect your college financial aid eligibility

With state after state legalizing marijuana possession for at least some purposes, it can feel like partaking in a little weed isn't a big deal anymore. Even though Pennsylvania hasn't legalized pot for any purpose, possession of a small amount of marijuana -- defined as 30 grams, or just over an ounce -- is often charged as a misdemeanor with very limited penalties.

Unfortunately, possession of even a small amount of marijuana can be a much bigger deal than you might expect, in some cases. If you're a college student, it could seriously derail your progress. Unfortunately, even a first-time conviction for misdemeanor-level marijuana possession could affect your financial aid eligibility.

I was just arrested. Will I lose my financial aid immediately?

No. First of all, an arrest is not a conviction, and only convictions affect your eligibility for federal student aid. Secondly, you're not at risk of losing your current financial aid package -- only the next one you're applying for.

Your federal student loan eligibility can only be suspended for a drug offense if you're convicted during a period in which you were receiving federal financial aid. When you fill out your next FAFSA form you'll be required to disclose this information, and that's how they'll know.

How long your eligibility will be suspended depends on whether your conviction was for drug possession or sakes, and if this is your first conviction. For example, a first-time conviction for marijuana possession can result in a one-year suspension. A second conviction for possession or a first conviction for sales means two years. Anything more than that calls for a permanent suspension.

Is there any way to avoid losing my financial aid?

Yes, and this is where a lawyer can really help you. The easiest way to avoid losing your financial aid is not to be convicted. There are real options for avoiding a conviction even if you think you're probably guilty. Don't take a guilty plea without talking to an attorney first -- guilty pleas count as convictions.

Just as important, your financial aid suspension can be shortened or avoided if your conviction is dismissed, set aside or reversed on appeal -- and your charges could very well be dismissed, if this is your first offense. That's because successful completion of Pennsylvania's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program results in the dismissal of your charges.

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