Cannabis on Campus: A Deep Dive Inside Higher Education Pot Policy in Medical Marijuana States

In this three-part series, journalist Danielle Corcione investigates how cannabis policy impacts colleges and universities. What are the stakes facing students, who live in legal states, or in states that haven't even legalized medical marijuana?

In part two, we'll tackle medical marijuana policies on the East Coast, looking particularly at higher education institutions in New Jersey.

“I hid [my cannabis use] by eating it and vaping inconspicuously,” registered nurse Christina Haas, who is a program coordinator and patient educator for medical marijuana practice My MD 4 Me, told Civilized.

Haas graduated from nursing school at Rutgers University (the state’s largest public university) in 2016. However, she was also in recovery for heroin addiction. During her collegiate years, she relied on edibles to manage stress, anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, trigeminal neuralgia, and secondary adrenal insufficiency, in addition to avoid relapse.

“July 15, 2015 was my last dose of suboxone because of self medicating with cannabis and I've never looked back,” Haas added. “It was humiliating and inconvenient having to hide and plan my day in order to medicate, depending on my mode of ingestion that day. The stakes were too high and my family was counting on me to see this through to the end.”

New Jersey’s cannabis market is booming. The state legislature passed medical marijuana back in 2010, making it the 14th state in the country to do so. Now, under the post-Christie gubernatorial administration of Phil Murphy, adult use legalization could be enacted this year.

But New Jersey medical marijuana patients, who also happen to be college and university students, are left out of luck when it comes to campus consumption, despite the efforts to expand the state’s medical marijuana program. NorthJersey.com reports that state schools are already preparing on how to crack down on weed once it becomes legal to consume recreationally.

Take Stockton University, located in Galloway Township in Atlantic County. The institution offers a minor in cannabis studies, where all registered minors are required to take a class called "Introduction to Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Law." However, students and staff, some of whom are medical marijuana patients, aren’t permitted to consume their medicine anywhere on campus — even if they live on campus.

“Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act,” Diane D’Amico, a spokesperson for Stockton University, told Civilized in a statement. “The possession, use, and distribution of marijuana (medical or otherwise) is prohibited on university premises.”

Prohibition, though, is less about the individual university and more about the federal government’s policies pertaining to schools. This isn’t unique to Stockton, either — it’s a standard for any higher education institution in the country receiving any type of federal funding. Failure to comply with federal policy regarding cannabis consumption in school zones can mean risking the institution’s federal funding, including those for student financial aid and faculty research grants.

“Federal law prohibits the use, possession and/or distribution by students and employees of illicit drugs on campus, on any school-owner property, or at any school activity, under the provisions of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act [of 1989] and the Drug-Free Workplace Act [of 1988],” added D’Amico. “This legislation expressly prohibits any institution that receives federal funding from allowing the use and possession of marijuana.”

Additionally, D’Amico stressed that although the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act can defend patients, caregivers, dispensaries, and physicians from criminal liability, it doesn’t protect those from arrest or prosecution.

“In this case, federal law supersedes any state law authorizing medical cannabis use on campus, so while states could choose to authorize medical cannabis use in schools receiving federal funding, they risk losing federal funds and/or facing other federal enforcement actions,” Baltimore-based attorney Emily Burns told Civilized. “Either way, it’s a pretty risky move on the part of schools who already face budget problems even with federal funds.”

Students with medical marijuana cards (not to mention, any college student who consumes cannabis) are deeply affected by this federal policy: They are vulnerable to arrest, because federal policy doesn’t differentiate between medical and non-medical cannabis.

Although the state passed a decriminalization measure to remove possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana from the list of disorderly persons offenses, this policy doesn’t apply to campuses. According to the Asbury Park Press, there were nearly 600 documented marijuana arrests made by New Jersey campus police departments in 2016, which is triple the number of arrests made in 2008. Other consequences students face include disciplinary fines, community service, semester suspension, expulsion, and loss of financial aid.

“A lot of people smoke weed, even some of the more academically inclined people who you wouldn’t expect to, but they have tried it,” said Raymond Mercer, founder and president of the campus chapter of the Student Marijuana Alliance for Research and Transparency (SMART). “So I’d say 50 percent of the Rutgers population has at least tried weed once.”

While Rutgers offers a Recovery House, a special dorm that offers “substance-free” housing for students in recovery, Mercer said the program isn’t well advertised to students. (He’s 500 days sober and didn’t know his school had a sober housing option.) However, Rutgers still has a drug-free campus policy just like Stockton, meaning cannabis consumption is strictly prohibited, according to the university’s student handbook. Additionally, any students involved with clinical health activities “may be required to undergo drug testing.”

When asked if campus safety is strictly enforced, Mercer stressed that often students are charged because of smoking indoors. “You’re gonna get caught if you smoke in your room,” he said. “If you got caught outside, the Rutgers Police Department or public safety you full-on get arrested.”

At Rutgers University, a third offense for drug possession can lead to a minimum semester suspension — a minimum of two, excluding summer sessions. A fourth offense can lead to expulsion.

New Jersey higher education institutions aren’t the only ones biting their fingernails. According to Gotham Gazette, those in New York are likely to follow the same pattern, following the announcement of Governor Cuomo’s plan to legalize adult use cannabis.

“When I was a freshman and lived in dorms, ‘on duty’ RA’s would roam the halls to catch people smoking weed or drinking,” explained Carolyn Hanson, a student at New York University. “In terms of outside, you’re just outside in NYC — you’re at the mercy of the cops, but smoking weed outside in Manhattan has been decriminalized. I had friends get arrested a couple years ago, but that won’t really happen now.”

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf approved eight universities to research medical marijuana, although Pennsylvania colleges adhere to the same federal standards — which means that, despite the research going on, no one can actually consume cannabis on campus.

“It kind of put a dent in their academic standing with Rutgers, obviously because they violated the terms and policies internally — getting caught and smoking in the dorm — or externally — getting arrested on Rutgers campus — so either way, they’re in hot water,” Mercer added. However, he said that most people are able to continue their education and that “Rutgers has been very understanding.”

While a student might lose a couple hundred dollars in court fees and may be required to spend some time with a counselor, he elaborated, "it's not going to ruin college.”

While the Garden State has taken steps towards progressive cannabis policy, the laws aren’t (yet) effective in addressing college and university campuses — federal law continues to provide a barrier. Students, who otherwise consume cannabis completely legally, are vulnerable to arrest and other consequences for on-campus consumption. Even as higher education institutions add cannabis courses to their roster, the shift in public policy and consciousness around cannabis has yet to change the very policies at the schools where these courses take place.

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