Legalize Our Campus?

February 3, 2015

by Erin Dunne

Fervor about legal marijuana is sweeping the nation. Presidential candidates have voiced their concerns and their intentions. Some states have legalized medical marijuana and others have even approved it for recreational use. On college campuses across the country, however, marijuana – medical and recreational – remains illegal regardless of state laws.

Virtually every college or university depends on federal funding. That federal funding comes with restrictions and, of course, adherence to federal drug laws. Without a change in federal legislation, college campuses will remain as they are, regardless of state law or local ordinances. It is for this reason that here in Ann Arbor a stop for marijuana could lead either to a fine on city property (local ordinance) or, just a few blocks away on university property, handcuffs and a misdemeanor (federal law).

Taking a step back, then, to answer what the effects of legalization would be for a college campus depends on where and how legalization happens. If it happens at the state level, almost nothing will change for students at the University of Michigan who would still be arrested, fingerprinted and brought to court for use anywhere on university property. If legalized at the federal level, however, those restrictions would change. Instead of criminal penalties, the University’s own policies, such as mandatory classes, would be the only official consequences. Here, it is also important to consider that most current legalization efforts explicitly state that legal recreational use would be restricted to those over the age of 21. As many college students are not yet 21, those individuals would still be subject to legal consequences.

Legal marijuana is about much more than college students facing arrest or a fine. The traditional arguments of legalization still ring true. The war on drugs following marijuana becoming illegal has disproportionately affected poor, often minority communities. Those who are arrested for marijuana are often left with a criminal record and/or punitive probation terms that can later contribute to harsher sentencing. Marijuana has documented medicinal uses and keeping it illegal denies those in need of medication. Marijuana is no more dangerous or addictive than cigarettes or alcohol. Keeping marijuana illegal is an infringement on individual rights. The war on drugs simply costs too much; legal marijuana would provide much needed tax revenue. Prohibition doesn’t work. The list seems endless.

However, these reasons seem abstract or distant to many college students. Taking a selfish and pragmatic approach and looking at the benefits of legalization for college students seems necessary. First and foremost, college students would be safer. On an academic level, universities would be able to pursue interesting and lucrative cannabis related research. From an educational standpoint, students would have access to course work that would prepare them to compete in the newly legal and clearly profitable world of cannabis and hemp production, distribution, and marketing.

Current federally mandated draconian drug laws enforced on college campuses and in university housing cause more harm than good to the very population they claim to protect.  Students face harsh penalties for violations of policies and consequently fear seeking medical attention. Students have few sources of accurate information and if caught, must deal with costly academic and professional repercussions. Students who receive financial aid lose their eligibility for a misdemeanor conviction. Victims of sexual assault seeking care protected under medical amnesty policies for alcohol use still face prosecution for drug use. Moreover, even those students with approval from a physician for state legalized medical marijuana are denied access on campus.

As a schedule 1 controlled substance, widespread bans on research and academic exploration into the properties of cannabis remain stringently controlled - especially in university-sponsored laboratories. The research potential of both hemp and cannabis are enormous and promise to be lucrative in terms of both patents and industry application.  Furthermore, at a school like the University of Michigan, with a dedication to medical research, the possibilities of medical marijuana as a treatment method could yield fruitful results.

Furthermore, as job markets become ever more competitive, it is important to leave college with skills applicable to emerging markets and fields. Legal medical and recreational marijuana create new industry related jobs that very few individuals are currently qualified to do. Legal marijuana would also open possibilities for new classes and entrepreneurial learning opportunities to jumpstart industry related careers of students after graduation. Cutting edge business courses in understanding new laws, marketing courses, and even research opportunities could all be available to students.

Overall, legal marijuana on college campus would have little impact unless it comes from the federal level. If legalized federally, colleges would only gain from legal medical and recreational marijuana. Students would have a safer college experience, and new research opportunities would emerge. Directly applicable skills-based course work could help students secure jobs in emerging fields. Even for those who do not support traditional arguments in favor of legalization, pragmatic applications of legalization bear obvious benefits to the University of Michigan community.

Erin is a current LS&A junior studying History and International Studies. When not delving into the past, Erin is busy serving as the Co-Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy on campus and working as a DJ at WCBN. Tune into her radio show to hear both bluegrass and overly personal stories broadcast over the airwaves.

Not So Harmless After All

by Joshua Meisler, LLMSW, M.Ed

        Let us first review the most powerful pro-legalization arguments.

The “War on Drugs” is a failure by any measure.  Nationally, we incarcerate our citizens at one of the highest rates in the world, and a huge percentage of adjudicated people in this country are being punished for non-violent drug related offenses, many of which involve marijuana.  Prevention, education, and treatment services are chronically underfunded and culturally and politically marginalized.

One of the most destructive features of our failed drug war is the disproportionate impact of our punitive regime on historically under resourced populations, particularly African American, Hispanic, and First Nations people.   Those populations are prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated at disproportionate rates across the criminal justice system, and especially in terms of drug related offenses.

Although these phenomena are apparent on the county and state level, there is no data to suggest that they extend to the campus community at University of Michigan.  Although the families and loved ones of members of the campus community may be affected by these conditions, there is very a low level of enforcement of marijuana related offenses across campus.

Thus, the strongest arguments in favor of legalization are essentially irrelevant when considering the campus community’s well-being.                                                                                                                                     

In contrast, emerging neuroscience and public health data reveal that Marijuana is anything but “harmless”, especially for college aged people.

In terms of Neuroscience, a revolution in our ability to study the brain and how it works is well underway.  We have more precise information than ever before regarding brain development.  One of the most important things we have learned is that brain development continues through the early- to mid- twenties, an age range that includes the majority of our student body.   During this crucial final phase of development, connections are formed and solidified between the frontal lobe, which is the site of critical thinking, cause and effect, and other adult mental processes, and the parts of the brain which regulate pleasure, impulsivity, and risk taking.  Research has clearly demonstrated that the introduction of marijuana seriously retards and may prevent completion of these essential developmental tasks, leading to long term negative consequences and outcomes for adolescent and young adult users.

There is also data which indicates that regular marijuana use through adolescence and early adulthood is linked to a 10-12 point lower IQ score as compared to non-users.

Similarly, it has long been generally accepted that marijuana use interferes with short term memory, information retention, and focus.  It seems counter intuitive that we would endorse a substance that is so detrimental to the skills and behaviors necessary to meet the goals of higher education at our world class institution.

From the Public Health perspective, experts assert that social and cultural messaging has a strong impact upon using patterns.  It is concerning that the information about the harms of marijuana use in adolescence and early adulthood are so little known in the general public and among University of Michigan communities in particular.  Legalization would send a dangerous message to the vulnerable and already under informed student population.

Our current politics and policies regarding marijuana use are not working.

We are in dire need of rigorous public information and education campaigns to insure that potential marijuana users are thoroughly and accurately informed when they are deciding whether or not to use the drug.

We desperately need to invest in treatment and recovery resources.   

In terms of the campus community specifically, changes in policy and resource allocation to encourage and facilitate the admission of potential students with drug related criminal history, and to develop and sustain campus culture and communities, which support recovery, would go a long way towards improving the University response to the negative impact of substance use.

Legalization addresses none of these shortcomings in our drug policy.

On the whole, the campus community is not affected by the negative consequences of the criminalization of marijuana.  We are, however, particularly vulnerable to the negative outcomes associated with adolescent and early adult use of marijuana.  Legalization will have an overall detrimental impact on the health, wellbeing, and academic and intellectual success of the campus community.

Joshua holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Michigan.  He is a social worker and educator who grew up in Ann Arbor, and has preserved his vintage $5.00 possession ticket as proof.  He currently provides clinical services to adjudicated youth in Washtenaw County for the non-profit organization Growth Works, Inc.