In the News: Here’s How Marijuana Legalization Is Punishing College Students

In the News: Here’s How Marijuana Legalization Is Punishing College Students

Published on November 10, 2021 by Kristina Willis

It should go without saying that anti-cannabis guidelines must be adjusted accordingly as more states embrace marijuana laws. Unfortunately, the transition to cannabis acceptance has been far from smooth. The disparity between federal and state laws incites massive confusion regarding appropriate legal procedures in numerous scenarios.

In states where marijuana is legal, colleges continue to forbid it under their code of conduct for fear of losing government funding. As a result, students are caught in the crossfires of federal vs. state legality and punished for using a legal substance. Even medicinal marijuana use can have egregious, long-lasting consequences, including expulsion and loss of financial aid.

Ironically, the demographic most in favor of legalizing marijuana is unable to take advantage of passing laws. This article discusses the injustices faced by college marijuana users and why administrators feel the need to enact severe punishments.


State vs. Federal Legislation

A vast majority of states allow medicinal cannabis; however, marijuana remains entirely illegal federally speaking. Though state marijuana laws predominately prevail over federal, public universities are under unique circumstances in which they must simultaneously abide by state and federal laws. However, when in direct opposition with one another, such as the case with marijuana, colleges defer to federal law to ensure compliance with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989.

According to law, colleges and universities that accept federal funding must recognize marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I substance. As such, students are not permitted to possess or use cannabis on campus or else risk repercussions.

“In most cases, state and federal law is similar or the same, which aids in the clarity of university policies. In this case, state and federal laws will have differences, and when that happens, we still have to make sure our policies align to both, even though they are different.”

Mark Owczarski, Virginia Tech Director of News and Information

Though there has yet to be an instance of an institution losing funding, it is understandable why colleges may want to play it safe. The federal government invests close to $150 billion annually in higher education institutions, which colleges rely on to function and support their students and research. Risking access to such funds may not be worth enacting changes to school marijuana policies, even if they more accurately reflect state legislation.

Inconsistencies with Substance Punishments

Some advocates claim that schools can reduce penalties for marijuana possession while still adhering to federal funding requirements but choose not to do so. Suspensions, expulsions, and loss of financial aid can be replaced with increased access to mental health and addiction support.

Moreover, even when marijuana violations are treated with leniency, refusal to change official procedures can result in varying disciplinary actions determined by personal biases. Therefore, school policy should reflect administrative practices to dissuade and minimize any injustices.

Additionally, other disallowed substances tend to have less severe consequences despite being held accountable by the same 1989 Act. For example, punishments for alcohol violations are often more lenient even though marijuana is considerably safer.

“Regardless of marijuana’s legal status, colleges should treat marijuana like they treat alcohol in their own internal policies. . . .Marijuana is much safer than alcohol, and so much less trouble.”

Morgan Fox, communications manager of the Marijuana Policy Project


Medical vs. Recreational Marijuana Laws

While it may be understandable for colleges to want to discourage recreational marijuana use as they do other drugs, there is nearly no argument to be made against cannabis for medicinal use. 91% of Americans believe that medical marijuana should be legal. And considering the abundance of proven therapeutic applications, it is absurd that the distinction has not yet been made on a federal level.

A Case of Administrative Hypocrisy

Perhaps the most alarming factor is that students are being punished for medical marijuana despite obtaining prior approval from administrators. For example, a student from GateWay Community College in Phoenix was expelled for using marijuana to treat chronic pain from polycystic ovary syndrome after receiving the go-ahead from college employees involved in student health needs. Similarly, a student with a state medical marijuana card in Florida was expelled from Nova Southeastern University’s nursing program even though school officials said it was acceptable.


Students Fight Back

Students on the receiving end of disciplinary actions resort to the only legal option left to them—the court system. In one instance, Sacred Heart University was forced to readmit a nursing student who was banned from making mandatory clinical rounds after testing positive for marijuana. Though contrary to the school’s policy, Connecticut law forbids public and private colleges from discriminating against students using marijuana. Unfortunately, other states do not have such clauses, making it less easy to declare injustice.

Additionally, student bodies have taken a stand. The student government at the University of Maryland, College Park, passed a resolution calling for the university to remove drastic penalties for students over 21 found with weed or drug paraphernalia, including housing termination, suspension, and expulsion. Unfortunately, how much sway student voices have over school policy is so far ineffective as institutions have neglected to enact changes.


A Multi-Faceted Problem for Students and Colleges

Marijuana legalization is clearly a two-toned issue. Though students undoubtedly should not be punished for using legal substances, colleges also cannot be blamed for wanting to stay within federal guidelines to look out for their monetary interests. Though changing school policies would be a step in the right direction, the long-lasting solution is to adjust the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance. Eliminating federal and state law inconsistencies is the best way to preserve legal integrity and align student and institutional discernment.

“This is why federal policies in particular about drug legalization are a bad idea because then you’re led into these conflicts between state and federal policies that are just not resolvable.”

—Jeffrey A. Miron, Harvard economist