How would California's controversial ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana use affect the way the state's universities deal with pot on campus?
Would passage of Proposition 19 portend a future in which, as a recent San Gabriel Valley Tribune editorial suggested, businesses are openly selling pot in your child or grandchild's college dormitory?
Administrators at California State University and the University of California say they have not had any "official" high-level conversations about the possible impact of the initiative on university policies. But others have begun to speculate.
James Lange, coordinator of alcohol and other drug initiatives at San Diego State University, said the measure, if successful, wouldn't change much about the university's prohibition on pot on campus. But it would significantly change the way the university educates students about marijuana, and it could potentially change the way marijuana-related violations on campus are handled.
Under the initiative [PDF], people 21 years and older would be able to possess or grow marijuana for personal use. But San Diego State University would continue to ban marijuana on campus because the federal government will still define marijuana as an illegal drug, and the school is subject to the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, Lange said. That law says any university that receives federal funding "must certify that it has adopted and implemented a program to prevent the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees" or risk losing the federal funding.
University officials could, however, change policy that currently requires police to be involved in every marijuana-related violation, Lange said. Such a change would have to be made at the CSU system level, not the campus level. Other than that, university sanctions for marijuana-related violations would likely remain about the same, he said.
One advocacy group, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, says the measure would bolster the argument that universities in California should treat marijuana violations the same as alcohol violations. The group's national effort to do this has been an uphill battle – what looked like a recent victory at the University of Arkansas was quickly reversed. Even still, advocates are skeptical that they would see changes right away should Proposition 19 pass.
"I think it's unlikely that they'll budge on this issue," said Jon Perri, associate director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "If anything was going to influence it, it would be Prop. 19. But it wouldn't be something that would happen immediately; it would take some lobbying from students."
Perri also hopes Proposition 19 would mean fewer students in California would lose federal financial aid as a result of drug convictions. Under a provision of the Higher Education Act, students who get a drug conviction while they're receiving federal financial aid may lose future eligibility for the aid – at least temporarily. A 2006 Los Angeles Times article told the story of Cal State University Fullerton student Marisa Garcia, who missed out on a year of federal financial aid after she was busted for possessing a pipe with marijuana residue.
As for campuses' message to students about pot, Lange believes these would need to change significantly. Rather than a simple "Don't use marijuana; it's illegal" approach, the university would need to talk to students about what it means to be a moderate marijuana user, and steer students clear of impaired driving, for example. These kinds of educational programs would be even more important if local municipalities authorize the sale of marijuana near campus.
Lange is actually teaching an online class on the subject, called "Marijuana Prevention in a Legalized Environment" for health professionals across the country.
The university would also have to get up to speed on what exactly the law allows so that it can educate students on potential legal risks. Under the measure, for example, anyone 21 or older who gives marijuana to someone between the ages of 18 and 21 (hello, traditional college population) would face up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
And in case you were wondering, you shouldn't expect to see students legally growing marijuana in their college dorm rooms. Although Proposition 19 allows people 21 and over to grow a small amount pot for personal use, it clearly states that cultivation on rented property depends on approval from the owner – in this case, the university.
"I don't think any dorm – or any university – would allow students to grow their own cannabis in the dorms," Perri said. "I don't see that happening."