College campuses cope with increased marijuana legalization

Although marijuana is still prohibited by federal law, nine states allow its recreational use and 30 permit medical use. Marijuana also remains the most popular drug among college students, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Nearly every higher ed campus bans the drug to protect federal Title IV funding, yet institutions still have to deal with the consequences and realities of diminishing state regulation.

When Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012, officials at Washington State University saw only a slight uptick in related campus incidents, says Adam Jussel, assistant dean of students and director of student conduct.

The legal age for use is 21, higher than the age of most students.

“The challenges we face are mostly around the socialization of it, the significance that marijuana holds in students’ minds,” says Jussel.


As such, the university takes a proactive, educational approach, beginning with the freshman orientation program, “Booze, Sex and Reality Checks,” which has a cannabis-related component.

“We try to partner with parents so they have the same information right out of the gate and can have those conversations with their children before they head off to college,” says Jussel. Students need to understand that just because use is legal for some, the law may not apply to everyone.

After legalization, the Office of Student Conduct partnered with residence life, counseling and the police to develop a standard response. Part of that includes IMPACT, a research-based drug and alcohol intervention program run by certified counselors who focus on risk reduction and social norming. The level of student involvement in the program depends on the severity of substance abuse.

Practical approaches to student discipline

Higher ed institutions in states where marijuana possession remains illegal also face challenges.

In Connecticut, someone caught with pot receives a fine that can be paid via mail.

A student at Southern Connecticut State University, for example, would be cited for an infraction on campus, fined and then referred to the institution’s judicial office, says Chris Piscitelli, assistant dean of students and director of student conduct. The meeting provides an opportunity to have a bigger conversation.

“I say, ‘Let’s talk about your usage patterns, let’s talk about how this affects aspects of your life—are you making it to class or are you stoned?’” says Piscitelli.

The students then participate in an online educational program, with extra counseling recommended on a case-by-case basis. SCSU also has a full-time addiction counselor on staff.

One of the biggest marijuana-related challenges is the increase of edibles, which have become popular because they lack a distinct odor, making for easy concealment, says Piscitelli.

The manufacturing processes and amounts of THC involved vary greatly. Last year, SCSU had five students transported to hospitals due to bad reactions to edibles.

Even as marijuana legalization and decriminalization grows, institutions need to continue to be practical in their approach.

“We don’t turn a blind eye to it all,” says Piscitelli. “However, when I’m working with students in my office, they’re not being treated as if they’re hardened criminals.”

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