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When New York legalized recreational marijuana use on March 30, it expanded a gray area at Syracuse University that exists for students on many college campuses across the U.S.
It is now legal to use marijuana for medical and recreational purposes state-wide, but many colleges and universities receiving federal money still prohibit the use of marijuana on campus. Some schools cite the continued federal prohibition of marijuana as reason for their bans, and others claim that — should they allow the drug on campus — they risk losing federal funding.
Because federal law doesn’t differentiate between recreational and medical use of marijuana, universities often don’t differentiate between the two in their own policies, an approach that leaves students who need marijuana to treat pain and other medical conditions in the dark.
Candice Bina, a junior television, radio and film major at SU, has been using marijuana since she was 18 to treat pain that accompanies Tourette syndrome. The neurological disorder causes body tics and spasms that can lead to back pain and swelling, she said.
“If I get high, I’ll be relaxed and not moving as much,” Bina said.
Chronic pain is the most common reason cited for using cannabis medically, said Dr. Jessica Knox, co-founder of the American Cannabinoid Clinics, in an email. People also commonly use the drug to manage or treat anxiety, depression, insomnia and a variety of other conditions.
The federal government currently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which asserts it has high potential for abuse and no accepted medical purpose.
“In reality, marijuana — like hemp — is a medicinal plant that has many known medical uses and a low potential abuse, especially when used in an informed manner and/or under medical guidance,” Knox said.
Knox said the classification also contradicts the federal government’s 2003 patent, which cites several therapeutic uses for the cannabis plant’s cannabinoids, compounds found in the plant.
Despite the science, colleges and universities are still hesitant to allow marijuana on campus, even when use is approved by a doctor.
On April 12, Marianne Thomson, SU’s associate vice president and dean of students, announced that the university’s Code of Student Conduct will continue to consider use, possession, purchase, distribution, manufacture or sale of marijuana or drug paraphernalia as violations of the code. The restrictions apply even if a student has a medical marijuana registry ID card, Thomson said in the campus-wide email.
Bina said she thought the email was “obnoxious.” To show that SU is invested in students’ well-being, SU should have provided more information about the decision to continue the campus ban and direction for students who need marijuana for medical reasons, Bina said.
“Based on my experiences as a disabled student on campus, that email just felt very nonchalantly dismissive, and I wish they would have elaborated.”
Questions that students like Bina have about how and where to use marijuana do not have easy answers, said George Hildebrandt, a criminal defense attorney based in Syracuse.
SU currently sanctions the use or possession of marijuana with disciplinary warnings and educational activities — such as program referrals, community involvement or community service — for students’ first and second offenses. On students’ third warning, SU suspends them.
“I would say, for the most part, if you’re relatively discrete about it, you probably have a low risk of being sanctioned by (universities),” Hildebrandt said. “It’s not a great answer, but we’re in a kind of gray area where attitudes at the local and state level are certainly changing faster than under federal law.”
When Bina was a freshman living in university housing, her resident director told her that marijuana use is always prohibited on campus, even if it is for medical purposes. After explaining her conditions, officials offered to waive Bina’s two-year on-campus housing requirement so she could live off campus, but Bina was concerned that off-campus housing wouldn’t be as accessible, so she decided to live on campus.
Bina said she could have made a more informed decision about where to live and how to access resources if SU made more information available about how the university can work with students who use marijuana for medical reasons.
SU does not offer adjustments to policies about marijuana use, medical or otherwise, said Sarah Scalese, senior associate vice president for university communications, in an email. The university is bound by federal law when it comes to the use, possession or distribution of marijuana on campus and by students, but it does offer reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities through its Center for Disability Resources, she added.
“The university will continue to support students and address their medical needs but must do so in compliance with the law,” Scalese said.
Some activists and legal experts have questioned whether universities need to comply with the federal prohibition on marijuana to maintain their federal funding streams.
Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said he doubts the concerns universities commonly cite are even warranted.
“I don’t think there’s been a single time when the federal government pulled funding for a university based on their cannabis policy,” Ortiz said.
An official with the Department of Education did not respond in time for publication to questions about whether universities can lose funding for permitting marijuana use, medical or recreational.
Several colleges and universities already teach classes on cannabis cultivation and business, and Ortiz said it would be appropriate if their disciplinary policies were similarly progressive.
Starting in June, SU’s University College will offer non-credit programs focusing on cannabis law, business, agriculture and medicine. The university is creating the program in partnership with Green Flower, a California-based cannabis education company.
Even with the risks associated with the federal prohibition looming, states can do more to guide educational institutions in addressing students’ needs with respect to marijuana, Ortiz said.
“When legalization campaigns move forward, they are, unfortunately, incredibly narrow in what they tell the state to do,” Ortiz said. “Because they do not specifically outline the process educational institutions need to take post-legalization, what essentially happens is nothing.”
The lack of information the government provides to schools means schools often have little information to offer to students. And the narrow political discussion about marijuana legalization exacerbates that lack of information, Ortiz said.
“Cannabis legalization is seen as exclusively a criminal justice and business conversation rather than giving the impact of the war on drugs the respect it deserves as a comprehensive destroyer of communities,” he said.
For the most part, marijuana regulations and policies continue to be made from a place of fear and stigma rooted in cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs, Knox said.
“Governments and institutions need to handle medical cannabis the same way they handle any other medical substance that might be used in their jurisdictions,” she said. “With a science-based approach, we’ll be able to move more expeditiously toward regulations and policies that make sense and better serve cannabis patients and consumers alike.”
Bina said she wishes SU would take a more hands-on approach to discussions about marijuana on campus, even if SU can’t stray from federal law. She suggested the university provide resources for students who use marijuana for medical purposes, explaining the university’s rationale and informing students of their options for accommodations and support.
Ortiz said he hopes federal law will change. In the meantime, universities can do more to encourage conversations on legal drug use rather than crafting policies and statements that perpetuate the destructive fallout of the war on drugs.
“There needs to be a commitment that the purpose of our educational institutions is to enrich students and make them smarter, healthier and more effective members of society, even if they choose to use drugs,” Ortiz said.
“Based on my experiences as a disabled student on campus, that email just felt very nonchalantly dismissive, and I wish they would have elaborated,” Bina said.
Published on May 12, 2021 at 10:08 pm