Heat Map: Marijuana

The Implications of an Evolving Legal Environment

By Janice M. Abraham    //    Volume 23,  Number 2   //    March/April 2015

Marijuana is going mainstream. Illicit drug use has been rising gradually since 2006, mostly, according to the 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, due to increased use of marijuana by college students. In fact, four out of 10 college students admit to illicit drug use, and daily or near-daily use of marijuana by college students is at its highest rate in more than three decades.

Although only four states (Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Washington) and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use and possession, lobbyists are pushing hard, and institutions should be prepared for more states to legalize its recreational use in the next few years. Several states have already legalized medical marijuana. Federal law still prohibits the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana, however, so while most institutions won’t be impacted by state laws, all must abide with federal law to protect federal funding.

Challenges arise on campuses when faculty members, staff members, and students are confused about an institution’s alcohol and drug policies. Individuals are likely to assume that because their state has decriminalized or legalized marijuana, they are free to use it without violating the institution’s drug policies. Likewise, in states where marijuana is legal for medical and recreational use, people may lack an understanding of the legal issues surrounding offcampus conduct. Yet another issue is impairment of a student, staff member, or faculty member who uses marijuana.

Board members should consider the implications of this evolving environment and ensure that administrators are on top of issues such as:

Understanding and assessing the campus environment and how drug use affects students. Ensure sufficient resources are in place to respond to the drug culture and ask administrators to develop goals and strategies for prevention and support. For example, the student affairs committee of the Whitman College board, where I serve as a trustee, invited the chief of police in Walla Walla, Washington, to discuss enforcement plans for off-campus drug use and the coordination of activities between campus security and the police department.

Complying with federal laws for research projects involving marijuana. Be sure that institutional review boards have and follow documented procedures for seeking Drug Enforcement Administration and National Institute for Drug Abuse approval on research involving marijuana and hemp, even in states that have eased marijuana cultivation and use laws. This is essential to complying with federal law and maintaining funding levels.

Conducting a legal review of the institution’s alcohol and drug policies. It is essential that the institution’s alcohol and drug policies comply with federal, state, and local laws. If your institution is in a state that has legalized marijuana, consider revising your policies to provide clear guidance on the prohibition of marijuana on the campus. It may also be important to prohibit off-campus use when students or staff members are involved in an institution- sponsored activity or on property owned by the institution.

Knowing the laws around medical marijuana as a reasonable accommodation. Be prepared to respond to increased medical marijuana use by employees. Note that while the underlying condition may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the use of marijuana is not a reasonable accommodation since federal law treats it as an illegal drug. Be aware of state laws, however, as certain states, such as Arizona and Rhode Island, provide protection to employees who hold prescriptions for medical marijuana, preventing employers from discriminating against them on the basis of their use of marijuana.

Marijuana use can have far-reaching implications across a campus, from research labs, to student activities, to managing employees. Whether or not it is legal in your state, your institution should evaluate its current alcohol and drug-use policies, Institutional Review Board (IRB) practices concerning use of marijuana for research, and human resources practices and policies related to medical marijuana. And, for the long term, you should start the discussion about how your institutional practices may change if marijuana laws change in your state or at the federal level.

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