Matthew Potter is a junior in political science and a student senator at N.C. State University. He is also president of the NCSU chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Last week, the NCSU student senate passed a resolution Potter introduced that calls on North Carolina's congressional delegation to amend the Higher Education Act.
Tell me about this bill.
It calls upon Congress to repeal the drug penalty from the Higher Education Act. The Higher Education Act regulates all federal funding for education, such as work study programs, loans and grants. The drug penalty was introduced in 1998, and it basically says that anyone who has any drug conviction becomes ineligible for federal financial aid, at least for a certain period of time.
Does this financial aid penalty apply to any other type of crime?
Absolutely not. This is the only crime that results in having financial aid taken away—arson, rape, assault, theft, battery, nothing; just drugs. And it can be anywhere from selling drugs to a simple misdemeanor possession.
How about students who were convicted of drug crimes before entering college?
The reach-back effect was repealed last year. Now, what happens before you go into college is not valid; it's only after you first receive financial aid that you can be penalized. That was a good start in repealing this penalty. However, it doesn't go nearly far enough considering that people who apply for financial aid for the first time are usually going to be under 18. The percentage of people affected by this penalty who that ended up helping is not that significant.
What inspired you to sponsor this bill?
It's one of the big issues that Students for Sensible Drug Policy is involved in. There are several problems that I have with the penalty, and one of them is that it disproportionately affects lower-income families. The people who are hurt the most are the people who can't afford to pay for college on their own. And one of the stipulations for having financial aid reinstated is going through a private drug rehab program.
This resolution passed 24 to 11 in the student senate. What kind of support did it have?
There was a lot of support among people who were concerned about the disproportionate affect that it has on lower-income families and minorities because of the disparities in conviction rates between whites and blacks. There was some talk about the issue of double jeopardy, being punished twice for the same crime.
What arguments did opponents make?
The crux of the arguments was disapproval for drug use in general. Some people said they didn't feel that we should be rewarding people by allowing them to keep financial aid. There was also someone who felt that the money that was being taken away from those students could be given to those students who were not drug users.
Do you know anyone personally who has been affected by this?
I know someone who decided to leave school for a period of time for fear that he would lose financial aid, but he ended up having his charges dropped. More than 5,000 students in North Carolina have been denied financial aid because of this penalty, but I don't know any of them personally.
What happens now?
Our student president forwards the legislation on to the appropriate parties. It will probably go to our vice chancellor of student affairs. Since it's just a resolution, nothing tangible will happen on campus. But it will be forwarded on to all the members of North Carolina's congressional delegation.
Members of the House and Senate education committees are considering whether to repeal the drug penalty as part of this year's reauthorization of the HEA. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) serve on those committees.