Should adult students be allowed to use medical marijuana at California colleges?

Cody Drabble, Sacramento News & Review

Legal pot and 21st-century student life collide in Sacramento.

When Jason Miller gets ready for his political-science classes at Sacramento City College, he skips Starbucks and opts for a marijuana vaporizer.

“Some people get coffee before school to calm their nerves and get ready for class,” Miller said, “but I smoke a little bit before I go to school. Then I’m in the right state of mind.”

Miller, like many college students in California, has a Proposition 215 card to legally purchase medical cannabis from one of several dispensaries around Sacramento. A doctor gave him a medical-cannabis recommendation to manage his anxiety condition.

However, because public institutions like SCC and Sacramento State University receive money from the federal government, the schools must enforce the federal prohibition on cannabis, regardless of its legal status under California law.

Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes says it’s “outrageous” for campus police to take a hard line against students who use cannabis, because that “makes it difficult for [student-patients] to use the medicine that works for them and is legal under California law.”

Miller knows better than to bring his medical cannabis onto the City College campus.

“I avoid [it], because it garners unwanted attention,” he said.

Other students are not so cautious: Miller says he sees a lot of other students smoking in the parking garage.

Kimberly Cargile, a cannabis-patient advocate in Sacramento, said she advises patients “to only use at their own homes or a private residence; not to use it at school or in public areas, because it’s safer.”

According to SCC public-information officer Amanda Davis, the Los Rios District Police Department cannot give students with a legally valid medical-cannabis card a break. “Our campus is a public space, so our police would handle it the same way any other police would,” Davis said.

At Sacramento State, Police Chief Mark Iwasa explained that when it comes to students who run into trouble with the criminal-justice system, “marijuana is the thing we run across the most.”

There have been a few instances of illegal substances other than cannabis coming onto the Sac State campus—a student was busted last year for possessing a salable quantity of Ecstasy—but most other trendy drugs in the news don’t pop up often.

Bath salts? Nope. Molly? Nada. Smoking alcohol? Nix.

“We’re not saying that it’s not occurring, we just haven’t caught up to it yet,” Iwasa said.

Ardith Tregenza, the director of the Sacramento State Office of Student Conduct, deals with disciplinary matters for students caught smoking weed in the dorms and on campus. She said that if someone sells drugs in the dorms, “they’re going to be looking at suspension.” Otherwise, punishment for possesion varies from probation to suspension to drug counseling.

Iwasa noted that for students busted for dealing to other students, “the sale thing has less to do with money than some kind of prestige.” College kids who sell are “almost never motivated by finance, in my observation,” he said. “It’s just an odd little phenomenon.”

Colleges that receive federal financial aid have to dislose criminal activity, according to the Clery Act. Colleges in the Sacramento area all saw a spike in drug-related arrests during 2009-2010, at the height of weed-dispensary proliferation. Then, once the Obama administration started cracking down, the number of drug arrests fell.

(It’s worth noting that Clery Act reports do not distinguish between arrests of students and nonstudents, but a Los Rios District Police officer at one campus estimated, anecdotally, that more than half of the arrests are students.)

Medical-cannabis activists are hoping that the murky state of the law will clear up in the near future.

ASA’s Hermes pointed out that in 2012, more Coloradans voted to pass Amendment 64 to legalize cannabis (1,383,140 votes) than voted to re-elect President Barack Obama (1,323,102 votes). “Congress is way behind the American people on this issue,” he said.

Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, mentioned in an email that some schools have accommodated students by waiving requirements to live on campus and permitting them to carry their medical cannabis, so long as they don’t smoke on school grounds.

“There has yet to be a case where a school lost any federal funding simply for following state law when it comes to marijuana,” Fox said.

Americans for Safe Access is pursuing a number of federal solutions, including lobbying for bills to defund U.S. Department of Justice enforcement in medical-cannabis jurisdictions.

Hermes acknowledged that remains “an uphill battle at this point.”

Iwasa explained that the campus police have to play it safe and enforce the ban on cannabis, because the “medical marijuana issue is still evolving.”