Stop punishing students for legal gray areas: College and federal marijuana regulations must change

Image courtesy of David Malan

Colleges across the country are penalizing students for possessing legally purchased or prescribed marijuana on campus (The Washington Post, 2021). University regulations surrounding drugs starkly mirror federal regulations, so students in legal states are subject to harsher penalties on their campuses. A Vassar student can stand across the street from campus on Raymond Avenue with legal marijuana, but as soon as they cross back onto campus, they are breaking Vassar College regulations. 

Countless legally purchased––but confiscated––bongs are likely sitting in the Vassar security office at this moment. This discrepancy between the legality of marijuana on and off campus is unfair to students. It’s time for Vassar to catch up to New York and change its outdated marijuana regulations. 

Last March, New York State voted to legalize recreational marijuana for those aged 21 and older. However, American colleges across all states still expressly prohibit marijuana and marijuana-related paraphernalia ​​(The Washington Post, 2021). 

Why are students getting caught in this legal gray area? Under the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, New Yorkers can now legally possess up to three ounces of marijuana for recreational use. But Vassar’s 2021-2022 college regulations ignore the new law and continue to push an outdated federal memorandum (Vassar College Regulations, 2021).

 Vassar regulations inaccurately state, “both federal and New York State law make it a criminal offense to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or simply possess a controlled substance, including marijuana”(Vassar College Regulations, 2021). Now, only federal law makes the aforementioned a criminal offense, not state law.

In discussing the effects of marijuana in their regulations, Vassar also relies on unscientific federal drug laws to discuss and frame drug use on campus. The College uses the federal drug schedule scheme, which places marijuana as a Schedule I drug, in the same group as heroin. The College’s regulations describe this category of drugs in detail: “Drugs listed in [S]chedule I have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and, therefore, may not be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use. In contrast, drugs listed in schedules II-V have some accepted medical use and may be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use.”  

In reality, these federal guidelines are tainted with corporate money. The notorious Sackler-family-manufactured opioid, Oxycontin, sits squarely among Schedule II-accepted medical drugs, while the epidemic it spawned has taken an insurmountable toll on the American public. There were almost 50,000 national drug overdose deaths involving any opioid in 2019 (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021). Meanwhile, medical experts find little to no link between marijuana use and overdose death (NIH, 2017). Despite thousands of Americans dying of opioid addiction, Oxycontin is still a Schedule II drug, showing that today’s federal guidelines on drugs are unscientific and potentially lethal.  

Vassar regulations state, “In order to protect all members of the [College] community, members should understand that the unlawful possession, use, distribution, or manufacture of illicit drugs by students and/or employees, on college property or as part of any school activity, is strictly prohibited by the college, as well as by New York State law.” Ambiguously, they also say, “The college cannot and will not protect any member of the Vassar community who has broken federal, state, and/or local law.” But in the case of marijuana, state and federal law are in direct opposition. Vassar regulations also warn of the effects of illicit drugs and alcohol in the same breath, while hypocritically treating alcohol and marijuana differently on campus. Of-age students can possess and drink alcohol, but of-age students with marijuana or related paraphernalia may have it promptly confiscated by security if caught, and they may receive an official warning as a first-time offender. If a student has previous violations, they may be subject to probation or even removal from housing. This practice is ridiculous, considering that alcohol is much more dangerous, causing more than 30,000 annual U.S. deaths (Washington Post, 2015). 

So why does Vassar continue to enforce and rely on these unscientific regulations? After all, Vassar’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is founded in science, so their treatment of marijuana should also be founded in science, right (Vassar College, 2021)? However, even private colleges like Vassar receive federal funding under Title IV. If the College doesn’t comply with federal guidelines outlined in the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, they risk losing the funds (The Fordham Ram, 2021).
But should American students bear the brunt of these legal inconsistencies, risking confiscation of legally purchased or prescribed marijuana and the possibility of expulsion (AP News, 2019)? Universities should side with science and change their unfair regulations on marijuana. With this increased national pressure, the dormant-on-the-issue Biden Administration could be spurred to take on the relatively politically easy task of legalizing marijuana. Science and public opinion are behind federal legalization (Pew Research Center, 2019). If anything, the persistent delay in federal legalization may force students to choose alcohol, a potentially more dangerous recreational substance. In effect, universities aren’t protecting students’ health by complying with federal law; they’re pushing students in a detrimental direction. Federal law must be changed in the interest of protecting students’ health and safety and preventing unnecessary punishment, confiscation and abridgment of student rights under state law. And universities, typically at the forefront of national change, need to stand up for their students and change their policies in a push for federal marijuana legalization.

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