Want to Toke on Campus? Not So Fast

Colleges in the four states where marijuana is now legal are having a tough time figuring out where they stand on the issue.

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Each year, the Princeton Review assembles dozens of different rankings for colleges and universities around America. There are lists of schools with the most generous financial aid, the most impressive lab facilities, and the most accessible professors, as well as rankings for schools with the most jocks or tree-hugging vegetarians.

Another category is Reefer Madness, which lists the schools with the highest on-campus cannabis use.

The fact that such a list exists, even in the face of a federal prohibition on marijuana, is a reminder that college administrations have complex approaches toward cannabis use. While they may firmly adhere to the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act—taking measures to prevent recreational drug use and penalize students for it—the reality of cannabis on campus is much hazier. From coast to coast, school administrations are having a difficult time establishing policies that align with the substance’s legalization in their state.

Nearly half of all states have passed medical cannabis laws. Four states—Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska—and the District of Columbia have passed social use laws. Making the legal territory even harder to navigate: more than a dozen cities and states have decriminalized cannabis, meaning there is little or no penalty for possessing small amounts of the substance.

As a result, while campuses officially continue to just say no, students in states with legalization are free to say yes to cannabis off-campus when they’re 21—and a majority of Americans support that option. In the fall of 2012, the impending passage of Initiative 502 sparked discussions on campus at Washington State University, said Melynda Huskey, the school’s dean of students. Huskey began deliberating with on-campus law enforcement, the city police force, and the health director about what legalization would mean for WSU students.

Now that students have returned to campus for the fall semester, some students and parents have asked questions. Generally, they’re pretty easy to field because WSU—and every other campus in the country—has a clear policy: "No cannabis consumption of any kind" on campus and follow the law off campus, Huskey said.

Still, some campus officials say it’s the school’s responsibility to educate students so they make healthy decisions. In states without legalization, if a 21-year-old student were to mention partaking in a cannabis brownie on a Friday night, administrators would likely cover their ears. But on campuses contending with legalization, administrators might remind students about the law, or talk about, say, the potency and effects of edibles.

“I think our drug education is generally more nuanced than ‘just say no,’” Huskey said. “We try to make that sure our messaging is very clear about what students need to know to stay clear of any possible entanglements when they’re on campus. And then in terms of health promotion and legality, make sure that they have access to really good information about the choices that they make once they’re 21 and off campus.”

Before Amendment 64, Colorado’s social-use voter initiative, a student 21 or older in possession of one ounce or less of cannabis on campus at the University of Colorado, Boulder could be cited by law enforcement for possession. Now, students 21 or older in possession of a small amount of pot on campus might just face disciplinary action from the school, according to Ryan Huff, spokesperson for University of Colorado, Boulder.

“You cannot smoke it in public. You cannot possess it in the residence halls. So all the same rules still apply,” Huff said. “I’d say that all that we’ve really done is increase our messaging, just to be clear, especially with out-of-state students. Because I think there’s some misperception that after Amendment 64, anything goes with marijuana.”

But an interesting shift has since occurred at the school: drug violations, including those for marijuana, dropped from 1,145 to 588. One of the reasons for this decrease, according to Christina Gonzales, the university’s dean of students, is that the school has moved away from a disciplinary approach toward a more instructive one.

“We have students who are still developing and figuring things out,” Gonzales said. “So, if we have to be punitive, we will, but we would rather be educational and have conversations with our students, remind them of policies, maybe send them to some educational workshops—rather than going the route of just citing them right away. Knowing that [marijuana] is legal if someone is 21 or over, yeah, we see it more like a low-level alcohol than a drug violation.”

Meanwhile, evolving medical marijuana laws also create tricky situations for school health administrators: campus health departments dispense medications, but they can’t obtain and give students medical marijuana because it’s federally prohibited.

WSU for its part will waive the requirement that freshmen students live in on-campus dorms if a student presents medical-marijuana documentation. CU Boulder does the same.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a state where possession and consumption of medical marijuana is legal for qualifying patients, said she raised the issue with the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

But the association also finds itself treading murky waters.

“Bottom line: there’s a clear conflict between state laws, public opinion, and current federal statute,” said Richard Doherty, the association’s president. “Informal—and, in some cases, conflicting—Department of Justice guidance is not enough. Desire for clarity continues to grow as more and more states adopt differing laws.”

Mount Holyoke is reviewing its medical marijuana policies. While no students currently use medical cannabis, and no students have requested to use it, Pasquerella said the administration is “trying to be proactive.”

“The best we can do is to come up with a policy that we think best meets the health-care needs of our students and then to look at what our options are under federal law,” she said. “So, if we propose to our attorneys that we would like to be able to administer medical marijuana in the health center, and we’re told, ‘no, you can’t do that,’ then could we arrange to have it distributed and taken off site? Would that still place us at risk?”

“I think one of the best things we can do is to draw attention to the dilemma that we’re faced with and try to be an advocate for the health-care needs of our patients who are residents here—and the risk that we’re under as a result of the inconsistency with federal law,” Pasquerella continued.

While schools must adhere to the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, some students have endeavored to implement small-scale or symbolic changes to make on-campus and off-campus policies more consistent.

Students at the University of Connecticut, pushed for reform on campus several years ago after the state in 2011 decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession. The UConn chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy launched a successful campaign to standardize the responses to underage drinking and cannabis possession. As a result, instead of immediately calling police, resident assistants have more discretion in how they handle disciplinary action.

“That’s the one minor victory—when they sort of listened to us,” said Tyler Williams, president of UConn’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter.

With voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. this election approving various social-use initiatives, more administrators and students will likely tackle the same questions of how to talk about cannabis and when, if ever, it will have a place on campus.

“I expect that as more states come on board and there’s more legalization of recreational marijuana in more states, which I think is going to happen, that this is going to get more attention at the federal level,” said Norm Arkans, a spokesman for the University of Washington. “And they’ll either have to amend federal law or develop guidelines or figure out some way to make it easier for people in these sort of circumstances where we’ve got two different laws and we’re trying to figure out how to behave.”