Colleges in legal bind over allowing student use of medical marijuana

Last modified: Sunday, August 24, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — When it comes to medical marijuana, Massachusetts colleges are left to choose between the right of the patient and compliance with federal law.

Educational institutions are fearful that sanctioning medical marijuana use on campus could jeopardize federal funding — which includes financial aid for students.

“Although Massachusetts law permits the use of medical marijuana, federal laws prohibit the use, possession, and/or cultivation of marijuana at educational institutions,” states the Code of Student Conduct at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Any institution that receives federal funding, the policy notes, must prohibit possession and use of marijuana.

“Schools are really in this bind,” said Julie Steiner, an associate professor of law at Western New England University in Springfield.

UMass Amherst is among several area colleges whose policies ban all marijuana — medical or otherwise — from campus, even though medical marijuana became legal in Massachusetts on Nov. 6, 2012.

Since 1996, 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, California being the first to do so. Medical marijuana can be smoked, and can also come in forms that include vapors, lozenges, topical solutions and teas.

Policies at Amherst, Hampshire and Smith colleges, as well as Westfield State University, also prohibit all marijuana from their campuses. Students with prescriptions for medical marijuana must apply to live off campus.

So far, none of these institutions has received requests from students to live off-campus for this reason, according to spokespeople for the schools.

Still reviewing

At Mount Holyoke College, a policy remains under review that would permit the use of medical marijuana on campus by students who hold prescriptions.

“If prescribed, we believe that physicians and their patients ought to be making the decisions together, and we’re not going to interfere with a physician’s judgment that this is the best particular treatment,” said Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella.

She said the college is looking into how students would be allowed to obtain the prescribed medication and where they would be allowed to take it, such as in the college’s health services center or in the dorms.

Pasquerella said no students at Mount Holyoke are known to hold prescriptions for medical marijuana, but the school aims to be proactive by shaping a policy.

She referred to a memorandum from the federal Department of Justice that outlines its priorities for enforcing marijuana laws. This memorandum, sent by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole to all United States attorneys Aug. 29, 2013, with the subject “Guidance Regarding Marijuana Enforcement,” states that the department found “it likely was not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on seriously ill individuals.”

Priorities for enforcement listed on the memo included preventing the distribution of the drug to minors, the sale of marijuana among gangs and drug cartels and drugged operation of motor vehicles. Still, the memo states that, “This memorandum does not alter in any way the Department’s authority to enforce federal law, including federal laws relating to marijuana, regardless of state law.”

The Hampshire College student handbook cites the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, which states that all educational institutions receiving federal funds must implement a drug prevention program prohibiting illegal drugs and alcohol.

According to Steiner, the Western New England University professor, federal law still recognizes marijuana as strictly illegal, with no medicinal purposes.

She said that while the August 2013 memorandum can provide some level of relief, it cannot provide “airtight assurance.”

“It’s not law, it’s a guidance document,” she said, and there is no guarantee that “what we see today as enforcement policy will be what we see tomorrow.” She notes that schools are not alone in this conundrum.

“All the doctors that want to in any way facilitate the ability of patients to access medical marijuana, they’re all facing some degree of uncertainty,” said Steiner.

She suggests that federal law be updated to recognize the medicinal properties of marijuana and distinguish medical marijuana from illegal drugs.

That, she said, would be ideal, but another solution would be to amend the August 2013 guidance letter to specify how medical marijuana policies would factor into a school’s ability to receive federal aid. This, she said, would at least take the aspect of “gambling” out of a school’s decision to allow it. “Saying something probably won’t come to pass is very different than saying something is legal,” she said.

Some students on campus preparing for the coming school year are sympathetic with the position their schools are in. “You really have to base it upon how many students it would affect,” said Michelle Guedes, 19, a junior from Shelton, Connecticut, studying English and psychology at UMass. “A lot more students on campus need federal funding than medical marijuana.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.