Legalized marijuana sparks issues for universities in Colorado, Washington and Oregon

The basic federalist structure of the U.S. legal system demands that federal law overrides state laws—and, with increasing numbers of states legalizing marijuana, that is causing some confusion, especially on college campuses. The issue has proven difficult for weed growers and sellers who have been raking in millions of dollars in Colorado, Washington and, most recently, Oregon, but are not allowed to store their money in federally-backed banks. Likewise, college officials often cite federal law, specifically, the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989, which still prohibits the drug.

In an article posted on, Jason Kilmer, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and committee chair of the College Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention, explained: “As recipients of federal funds, it is important to recognize that independent of state rules, colleges and universities must comply with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act.”

Three years ago, voters in both Washington and Colorado approved ballot measures legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for persons over 21 years of age. In November 2014, Oregon joined that group, and on October 1, 2015, the state will fully allow the sale and use of recreational marijuana, except where counties or cities explicitly vote to ban it—and on college campuses. Akin to an embassy in foreign territory, universities must design their policies with respect to federal law even though they are located in a state that permits recreational use of marijuana.

But exactly how far that ban will reach is unclear. Does that include off-campus fraternities and sororities, and off-campus housing, especially for students who are being supported by federal grants or loans?

“Everyone is thinking about what this looks like,” Dr. Erin Foley, dean of students at the Oregon Institute of Technology told TIME magazine. “The bottom line is that for the federal government, marijuana is still illegal, so that trumps state law because we get federal funding. It’s straightforward. The bigger piece for us is to make sure students are aware of that.”

But the idea that marijuana is legal in the state, but not on campus, is a lot like telling a teenager that he may have passed his drivers’ exam, but won’t be allowed to drive the family car.

For colleges, though, the incentive for full compliance is massive: To be eligible for federal funding, colleges must implement drug-prevention programs—and as long as weed is federally illegal, that includes listing marijuana as an illicit drug. Schools like Portland State in Oregon are incorporating information that marijuana remains illegal on campus into expansive anti-smoking campaign.

But Colorado, which is entering its second full academic year during which marijuana has been legal, has not experienced any far-reaching chaos. In the recent article in TIME magazine, Ryan Huff, a spokesman at University of Colorado - Boulder, explained that the only change has been that campus police now cannot give a citation to anyone over 21 in possession of less than an ounce on campus, as allowed in the new state laws. He also added that the housing administrators have overhauled policies to allow students who need medical marijuana to live on campus.

The funding issue is particularly keen, as the tax dollars generated from pot sales—an estimated $120 million for Colorado and $80 million for Washington—is largely earmarked for public schools, however, only K-12, even though most students at public colleges are still under 21 years old.

But, at least at one university is deriving some funding from the legalization of marijuana. An associate chemistry professor at University of Puget Sound in Seattle has received $120,000 from the National Institute of Health, a federally funded organization. Along with research students, he will test campus waste water over the next three years to determine whether indicators, like THC in the water, are showing any signs of increases since marijuana was legalized.

The results from this study will be helpful to school administrators for indicating whether legalizing marijuana actually has led to an increased use on campuses, and how much the changes in state laws demand more attention or change in policy.

Posted in Student Health and Wellbeing

Subscribe to Campus Law Considered Blog