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Cannabis on Campus: A Deep Dive Inside Higher Education Pot Policy in Legal States

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Despite the growing number of states legalizing cannabis for adult use, many places even within those states remain under the grips of prohibition — those places, namely, are the thousands of colleges and universities around the United States. Even though many undergraduate students are of legal consumption age, and many may be registered patients through their state’s medical marijuana program, it is still against the law to consume cannabis anywhere on campus at a school that receives federal funding (which means any accredited institution).

In a three-part series, journalist Danielle Corcione investigates how cannabis policy impacts colleges and universities. What are the stakes facing students, who live in legal states, or in states that haven’t even legalized medical marijuana? 

In part one, we’ll tackle adult use cannabis policies on the West Coast, looking particularly at institutions of higher education in California.

Even though adult use cannabis is legal in California, college students are still living under prohibition on their campuses.

Campus security is everywhere,” Joshua Andal, a student at San Joaquin Delta Community college (which is a smoke-free campus), told Civilized. It wouldn’t be smart to smoke on campus here.”

After becoming the first state to pass the nation’s first medical marijuana initiative in 1996, California legalized cannabis for adult adult use two decades later. Those 21 or older are free to consume, unless, that is, they’re on a college campus. Despite state policy, both higher education institutions speak to the federal government first — because that’s where the money talks.

According to the University of Southern Californias drug-free campus policy, federal regulations require that, as a condition of receiving funds or any other form of financial assistance under any federal program, an institution of higher education must certify that it has adopted and implemented a program to prevent the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees.” Yes, even private schools, like USC, must adhere to federal law (read: prohibition) if they receive any type of federal funding, including Pell Grants to cover students’ tuition. 

In other words, any college or university — public or private — that gets some type of federal funding must follow federal law, regardless of the individual state policy where the school is located.

People vape constantly,” Alexander De La Campa, a student at San Jose State University (also a smoke-free campus), told Civilized via email. It is California, so the culture is much more open about cannabis and for the most part only enforced through policy. The campus isn’t against it outright though.”

De La Campa is a military veteran and also involved with Operation EVAC, a student-led organization dedicated to educating veterans about cannabis. The University is actually going to provide space for us to hold these meetings but were very strict about consumption and distribution on campus,” he added. 

Attorney David Reischer stresses these drug-free zones were designed to keep drugs away from children, but unfortunately, they have created many legal issues. Specifically, these policies impose very excessive penalties on low income and minority populations,” he told Civilized. The penalties on poor communities and/​or communities of color greatly impact students from these communities, who may be at a higher risk for penalty on campus just like they would in their neighborhoods.

There are three pieces of law which affect college campuses and the students who fill them: the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (DFSCA), and the Drug-Free Workplace Act.

The Controlled Substances Act, signed into law by President Nixon in 1971, created five schedules to classify drugs based on their supposed abuse potential, medical applications, safety, and potential for addiction. Under the CSA, marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance, in the same category as heroin. While scientific research and anecdotal evidence provide a factual counterpoint to marijuana prohibition, its Schedule 1 status gives the false impression that the cannabis plant is a dangerous drug, 

The Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (DFSCA) requires institutions receiving federal financial assistance to establish drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs for students and employees,” Allison Margolin, partner attorney at Margolin and Lawrence in Los Angeles, told Civilized. So California’s public colleges and universities are required to have these types of programs and to distribute materials that contain the standards of conduct to their employees every year.”

The DFSCA was passed by George H. W. Bush in 1989. This law states that for students to be eligible for financial funding like Stafford loans, federal work study, or other types of financial aid, a college or university must enforce a drug program with proper protocol for students cited for drug use, possession, and/​or distribution (of cannabis or other substances). 

The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention states in a compliance guide states: The program must include annual notification of the following: standards of conduct; a description of sanctions for violating federal, state, and local law and campus policy; a description of health risks associated with [Alcohol and Drug] use; a description of treatment options; and a biennial review of the program’s effectiveness and the consistency of the enforcement of sanctions.” (Although this guide was published in 1997 and reprinted in 2006, these laws have changed very little if at all in the past couple decades, despite recreational legalization policies that have since been passed.) 

Lastly, the Drug-Free Workplace Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. California adopted its own, nearly identical variation of this legislation in 1990, but it only applies to those contracting with or receiving grants from the state government. While this law was intended to impact workers over students, it can be applied to students holding jobs on campus, such as those through Federal Work Study grants. 

The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires that some federal contractors and all federal grantees provide drug-free workplaces as a precondition for receiving federal funds,” Margolin added. This Act does not require organizations to drug test their employees but they also don’t protect employees. And an organization may do more than is required as part of its efforts to maintain a drug-free workplace.”

These regulations don’t just apply to California institutions, either — they apply everywhere, even where recreational measures have been passed. Colleges and universities in Oregon, for instance, have insisted that prohibition still be effect on campus, reports the Oregonian.

While California was once the leading cannabis state in the country, it won’t be the leader in ending campus prohibition anytime soon.

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