College campuses have long dealt with the challenge of alcohol on campus in a variety of ways. On the more liberal end of the spectrum, Stanford’s “open door policy” allows beer and wine at college parties for those 21 and older, while Brigham Young’s Honor Code forbids alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and illegal drugs of any kind.
But, how will colleges and universities address the growing question about a student’s right to consume cannabis in states that have legal marijuana?
American universities, regardless of their location, have mostly maintained prohibition stances on marijuana. Because almost all universities heavily rely on federal financial aid, they have been wary to do anything that signals a softening on a substance still listed by the DEA as a schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use.”
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Jake Agliata an outreach coordinator with Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) believes that this careful approach can hurt students:
“One of the things not often talked about with cannabis on college campuses is the medical aspect. Medical cannabis patients who are also students on college campuses are often discriminated against because the school has policies that prevent them from medicating on campus, which is often where they live.”
He points out that faculty and staff who are medical marijuana patients are often affected by the same policy.
Regarding these university positions, Agliata states:
“One of the issues with prohibitive cannabis policies at any school is that they punish good students for doing something that is not at all harmful to the college community. This is even truer in states that have legalized cannabis, as if a student were consuming outside the boundaries of the campus, they would not be receiving the same level of punishment.”
Universities with the responsibility of teaching and protecting students often do not agree that this behavior is without negative impact. Institutions like the University of Washington are currently in new territory, with more legal recreational pot shops around its campus in Seattle than Starbucks stores.
Jason R. Kilmer, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, assistant director of Health & Wellness for Alcohol & Other Drug Education Division of Student Life at UW. His research focuses on harm reduction-based prevention and intervention efforts around college student alcohol and other drug use. While others may be singing the praises of cannabis, Kilmer must honestly try to assess both foreseen and unintended risks of cannabis on campus.
Kilmer points to important data like Dr. Amelia Arria’s study from the University of Maryland showing that “over 40 percent of those with chronic (cannabis) use experience enrollment gaps compared to under 25 percent of those with no use or minimal use.”
He must also balance that with the opportunities cannabis legalization is presenting to him as a researcher. Kilmer has witnessed that:
“[Students] have sensed a shift and change in stigmas associated with use of cannabis, so there are increased opportunities to have conversations about cannabis with less concern about judgment. … We are always mindful of people obtaining substances without complete knowledge of what’s in them, and legalization has worked to change that for those purchasing cannabis through legal outlets.”
He remains hopeful as some barriers to research have been recently lowered, allowing more study into cannabis and its possible effects on students, their health and their work.
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It appears that, for the moment, cannabis is poised in the classic tug of war of academia. The students, or at least a vocal subset of them, push for more liberal considerations while the institution moves carefully, seeking to protect students and its own reputation.
Will cannabis use be allowed by more institutions of higher learning? Some advocates are hopeful that cannabis on campus could cut into the binge drinking culture and the vandalism and violence that often accompanies it. Some university administrators are concerned another intoxicating substance will simply complicate the equation.
Which position will prevail? It is simply too early to know. Like so much in this cultural shift, the answer is we must wait to see while the tug of war continues.