Colleges and marijuana may be linked in the public consciousness, but the two still don’t go together in Maine – not officially, at least – despite the drug’s legalization earlier this week.
Colleges and universities throughout Maine have been reminding students that marijuana is still prohibited on their campuses, regardless of pot’s new legal status elsewhere for those 21 and older. It’s a textbook case of political irony, given that many of those colleges are located in towns that tilted heavily for legalization last November in a campaign where the statewide margin of victory was just 4,000 votes.
“The federal law and the state law are in conflict with one another and our perspective is – like many of our fellow institutions of higher education – that we will continue to follow federal law,” said Joshua McIntosh, Bates College’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “Our approach to it and our policies toward it remain unchanged and will likely remain unchanged until that conflict between the state and federal governments gets worked out.”
Same goes for most, if not all, institutions of higher learning in Maine.
“Nothing will change here,” said Robert Dana, vice president for student life at the University of Maine in Orono.
PART OF A NATIONAL TREND
That dynamic also is playing out on campuses in Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts and the four other states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Faced with the prospect of losing grants and scholarship money by violating federal law, colleges are opting to play it safe when it comes to official policy, even if the on-campus reality is a bit hazier.
Sam Mendez, director of the University of Washington School of Law’s Cannabis Law and Policy Project, is not aware of any colleges in legalization states that are openly allowing the use of marijuana, believing that would risk the loss of federal funds. Mendez, whose state along with Colorado first legalized marijuana in 2012, said private colleges that are less dependent on federal funds could test that theory, but none have been willing to roll the dice.
“The ironic thing is cannabis is used in college campuses very, very widely but it remains against the rules and against the law,” Mendez said. “Until there is actually reform at the federal level, I don’t think that is going to change much. There might be (a school) which is going to challenge the federal government, but that is a big gamble because that could be the loss of millions or even tens of millions of dollars.”
As of last Monday, Mainers age 21 and over are allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and up to six flowering plants for their personal use in a private setting. The ballot initiative approved by a slim majority of voters last November also legalizes retail sales of marijuana, however pot shops and social clubs will not open until at least February 2018 after licensing and enforcement rules are in place.
However, college and university administrators insist they are obliged to live by higher standards.
In order to qualify for their share of billions of dollars in federal financial aid and research grants, colleges must certify that they comply with Title IV of the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. That certification requires schools to adopt and disseminate “standards of conduct that clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees on its property or as part of any of its activities.”
The federal Drug-Free Workplace Act also imposes requirements on employers that receive federal grants or contracts.
“As far as the feds go, nothing changed in their eyes so nothing has changed for us,” said Rob Levin, spokesman at College of the Atlantic, a school renowned for its crunchy culture and environment-oriented programs.
All of the colleges and universities surveyed by the Portland Press Herald – UMaine, University of Southern Maine, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Bates College, University of New England and College of the Atlantic – cited the federal prohibition on marijuana in prohibiting the drug on campus.
Administrators at several colleges followed-up November’s legalization vote with warnings to students.
“In short, nothing changes at Bowdoin,” Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster and Vice President of Human Resources Tama Spoerri wrote to students and staff on Nov. 14.
“The college will continue to prohibit students from violating federal law by possessing, trafficking, or using illegal drugs, including marijuana, and/or drug paraphernalia,” the letter continued. “Because the college is subject to federal law (see below), and because students are guided by our Academic Honor Code and Social Code, this applies to the use of these drugs by students on and off campus. Students who violate this code will be subject to disciplinary action, and students who sell illegal drugs will be asked to resign from the college or will be subject to a Judicial Board hearing for permanent dismissal.”
Bowdoin’s strongly worded message – and its threat of disciplinary action even for off-campus use – goes further than most in Maine. But so-called resident assistants, or RAs, at other colleges have been giving a version of “the talk” to dormitory dwellers on their campuses, even though many of those undergrads living in dorms are likely too young to consume marijuana.
Madeline Waugh and Danielle Lucas, who are both RAs on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, said students didn’t seem particularly surprised or upset.
“They didn’t get mad. They just said, ‘OK,'” said Waugh, a 22-year-old senior. But marijuana use was a concern for RAs at the University of Southern Maine – as it is at most other colleges nationwide – before the November vote.
“I really don’t think it changed anything,” Waugh added. “It’s illegal to drink under age 21, but people find ways to do it.”
YOUNG PEOPLE HELPED PASS QUESTION 1
Of course, it’s undeniable that the college-aged crowd played a role in November’s legalization vote.
A majority of voters in nearly all of the communities that host colleges or universities in Maine – Portland, Orono, Brunswick, Farmington, Waterville, Bar Harbor, Biddeford and Bangor – voted in favor of legalization. And the vote tallies weren’t even close in most of those communities, despite the fact that the margin of difference statewide was just 3,995 votes, or 0.5 percent of the total.
David Boyer, who helped lead the Question 1 campaign, said he knew from observing what happened in the states that first legalized marijuana that Maine colleges would likely continue to prohibit pot. But he hopes that schools will begin to treat marijuana like alcohol, a substance that is widely abused on campuses nationwide and that Boyer said is clearly linked to sexual assault and other problems.
“When people realize the sky hasn’t fallen, it will be relaxed” on campus, Boyer said. “I’m sure (marijuana use) is still going on, but we don’t think colleges should be punishing students for using a legal product.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: