By Erin Dunne
In Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, the penalty for marijuana possession depends on which side of the street you are on.
If you happen to be on university property you will be put in handcuffs, arrested, and charged with a misdemeanor – even as a medical marijuana patient. On city property, perhaps just across the street, you would only face a small fine for a civil infraction.
This discrepancy is the result of laws mandating that public institutions of higher education adhere to federal drug regulations, regardless of local law, or else lose much needed funding.
In Ann Arbor, marijuana has been decriminalized by city ordinance since 1972. When the “Drug Free Schools and Communities Act” passed in 1989, however, students on campus were subjected to stringent federal regulations that treat possession and use as a misdemeanor criminal act punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or up to a year in jail.
That act impacted more than just students living on campus, as a large portion of the city – anywhere owned by the university – also fell under these regulations.
For students who are also medical marijuana patients, the regulations are also dangerous and discriminatory. Students who rely on their medication not only potentially lose access to on-campus residential communities but are also barred from carrying their medication while on campus.
One student at the University of Michigan who wished to remain anonymous told me, “Medical marijuana has helped me in numerous ways. I've always had severe PMS - cramps, back aches, insane mood swings, etc. that caused me so much trouble throughout my teenage years - and nothing helps me the way that medical cannabis does.” Yet, as a resident living in on-campus housing, she was subjected to a disciplinary meeting when her Hall Director learned that she used medical marijuana and told her that she could not even posses her medication in her dorm room.Her experience is not uncommon, and even though she was penalized for using marijuana, she considers herself lucky, saying that her experience “was a unique case.”
Other students have not been quite as fortunate. Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, told me that he was taken out of his dorm room in handcuffs when the University of Michigan Police Department discovered legally purchased medical marijuana, even though he had a valid medical card.
Differences between on and off campus repercussions for drug use are not unique to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. As states continue to legalize or decriminalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use, more and more students face confusing regulations.
Public university administrators, well aware of the discrepancies between local and federal law, have tried to make students aware of these policies, but students remain largely unaware that a medicine legally prescribed by the state they reside in could lead to their arrest on campus.
At the University of Michigan this fall, Residential Advisors and other housing staff attended training on alcohol and other drugs that specifically highlighted use or possession of medical marijuana as illegal. These university employees were instructed to immediately inform law enforcement of any suspicion of marijuana use, including for legitimate medical reasons.
Such policies, stemming from federally mandated laws regarding drug use, leave universities with little choice when faced with student use of medical marijuana.
As one student who used medical marijuana explained, “Until the federal law changes, I unfortunately do not think there's anything that public universities can do to help students who use medical marijuana.”
Erin Dunne is a senior studying History, French and International Studies. In her free time she is a drug policy reform advocate and a free speech enthusiast.