• September 1, 2015

College Lawyers Grapple With the Implications of Medical Marijuana on Campuses

Emboldened by state laws that accommodate or decriminalize medical marijuana use, a new generation of college students is pushing institutions to let them toke up. But the response from affected colleges has been decidedly ungroovy.

At a panel session during the National Conference on Law and Higher Education here on Sunday, presenters told an audience that consisted mostly of university lawyers that deregulation of marijuana use need not compel colleges to relax their own conduct codes on drug use. That's because, as recipients of federal funds, colleges are governed by the federal statute that classifies marijuana as a controlled substance, experts said.

Colleges do, however, need to do a much better job of communicating with students, and faculty and staff members about how current conduct codes fit into the context of state legislation concerning marijuana, said Thomas A. Workman, an associate professor of communications at Baylor College of Medicine, who has worked on college substance-abuse-prevention programs.

"We can't just say 'Just say no.' 'Just say no' won't work anymore," Mr. Workman said at the conference, which was sponsored by the Stetson University College of Law.

Several institutions have already issued statements or revised policies to deal with confusion about the difference between state laws and university codes. Among them is the University of Montana at Missoula, which in 2010 adopted a policy specifically prohibiting the use of marijuana, even by people with state-issued medical-marijuana permits, in university housing, on university property, or at off-campus events sponsored by the institution.

Montana officials said at the time that they feared losing federal funds if they reversed the university's zero-tolerance position.

As could be expected, university policies that deny students access to prescribed marijuana can draw legal challenges. Edward Nicholson, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, threatened to sue the institution after the campus police in May 2008 confiscated marijuana he was authorized to administer to his brother, who sustained injuries in football. To great fanfare among legalization advocates, Mr. Nicholson was permitted to move to off-campus housing, and the police returned his two ounces of marijuana.

The university still forbids drug possession on campus, but it will release students from housing contracts if they live in residence halls and have a medical marijuana prescription. Other institutions—including Fort Lewis College, in Colorado, and Humboldt State University, in California—have taken a similar stance, advising medical-marijuana users to live off campus and leave their medicine at home.

Speakers on the panel here pointed out that while the "federal trump card" gives universities legal cover to ban marijuana use without fear of challenge under the Americans With Disabilities Act or similar state laws, they still face challenges when dealing with marijuana use among students.

Students tend to "romanticize" the drug, Mr. Workman said, a factor that is compounded by some professors, who were of college age in the 1960s and associate marijuana with the peace movement.

Indeed, it is marijuana's unique position within popular culture that so lures students to use it, Mr. Workman said. There's a lot of debate about marijuana's risks and potential medicinal value, and college administrators simply don't have a lot of research to point students toward in defense of prohibitive policies.

Students tend to view marijuana as a safe drug that serves a valuable social function, he added. "It's something you do at a table while making jokes and eating Doritos," he said, referencing depictions of marijuana use on "That '70s Show."

Darby Dickerson, vice president and dean of Stetson's law school, said it is important to convey to students, however, that there are reputational and legal risks to consider—even if they have marijuana prescriptions. Courts have upheld employers' rights to administer drug tests and sanction or terminate employees who fail tests because of prescribed marijuana use, she said.

"You don't get a free pass because you have a medical-marijuana card," she said.

Sunday's conversation invariably turned toward other legal drugs, including synthetic forms of marijuana known as "Spice" or "K2."

Mr. Workman reiterated that existing university policies forbidding the use of substances that pose "harm to self or others" already cover synthetic marijuana, but he expressed consternation with how frequently new substances seem to appear on the college scene. He noted, for example, the emerging trend of students snorting bath salts for a high.

"I don't know who was the bright, bright egg," he said. "Who was the future of America who said, 'Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I snort this up my nose?'"


1. interface - February 07, 2011 at 07:55 am

Can't we all just get a bong?

2. judicial1715 - February 07, 2011 at 09:45 am

No, don't want one.

3. emilygibson - February 07, 2011 at 09:45 am

As a Student Health Center care provider at a University, I am seeing higher demand for prescribed marijuana. This is about more than just the "romantic nostalgia" for the drug. Modern THC concentrations are over ten times higher than the weed of 30-40 years ago. This is almost universally about students who don't want to be found in possession of marijuana seeking legally sanctioned relief from stress-related symptoms.

My medical perspective is found on my blog at

Emily Gibson M.D.

4. drbond7 - February 07, 2011 at 11:05 am

I wonder if universities which ban the use of medical marijuana provide comparable alternatives. That is, if a student is denied the legal use of medical products are they compensated with just as effective and expensive alternatives?

5. 11272784 - February 07, 2011 at 11:34 am

We need to de-criminalize this stuff and move on. Booze has killed and injured 100x more people than MJ ever will.

6. anonytrans - February 07, 2011 at 12:37 pm

There were several articles in mainstream news sources that showed up a number of years back discussing Canadian universities' decision to allow faculty with serious health problems to make use of medical cannabis on campus (medical marijuana is legal at the federal level in Canada, where it is produced by the government and sent to patients at low cost). They seem to have had success with this and have figured out how to, e.g., create private spaces to minimize non-patients' exposure.

I look forward to the day when the US follows suit. I don't know how many peope find themselves in my situation, but we're not just talking about stoner undergrads or something - it's about faculty and serious graduate students too. For me personally, it's impossible to participate fully in departmental life because I'm constantly at home trying to cope with my severe chronic pain, and having the ability to medicate on campus would massively improve my life and career.

7. rsp0001 - February 07, 2011 at 01:16 pm

Institutions are having a hard time providing for people with special needs. Prisons allow for conjugal sex; why not legal drugs? Colleges also provide for recreational sex and drugs in many sponsored activities. The need for stress relief via alcohol might be warranted along with the need to breast feed someone's infant. Toilets are already provided for lesser needs so why not expand the range of supported activities and opportunities? The need for interventional psychiatric care or specialized personal care is growing rapidly. Religious needs are also very personalized and might be provided for with dedicated facilities and staff for eating, praying, and practicing unique beliefs.

How far will colleges go before they lose their identity as colleges?

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