Why Colleges and Universities Believe the Federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act Prohibits (But Actually Doesn’t) Medical Marijuana on Campus

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As medicinal and recreational cannabis is becoming legal in more and more states, students are under the assumption that they can use medical marijuana on campus. It’s a fair assumption, especially if your state has legalized both medical and recreational use. Except your school most likely disagrees.

Its phalanx of campus administrators who police “community standards” will not hesitate to discipline you — even expel you — even that means breaking your state’s law.

The Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act

One reason colleges and universities have opposed medical marijuana on campus is the Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (20 U.S.C. § 1011i).

Schools have interpreted this law to prohibit drug use on campus because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug. Some campuses even go so far as to prohibit marijuana use off campus, as part of their honor code.

Marijuana has been legalized in a majority of states in some form. But under federal law it remains illegal.

Students across the nation have found themselves forced to undergo drug testing and are removed from their programs for testing positive, even though the student may even have a medical license to legally use the drug.

The students who most commonly run into these problems are found in the professional schools such as nursing, where drug testing is sometimes required.

If you test positive for “opioids,” but you have a legitimate prescription, this will not be considered a drug violation because use is legal under a physician’s advice. The ambiguous status of medical marijuana, legal under state law but illegal under federal law, makes it different.

Colleges Say They Are Afraid to Lose Their Funding

The hook for colleges under the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act is federal funding.

This is why they fear medical marijuana. There are almost no colleges or universities that do not receive federal funding of some kind, and the Act threatens to withdraw this money unless schools implement some sort of drug prevention policy.

Some federal agencies advise that the law be overinterpreted and over-enforced, such as the DEA.

It’s important, however, that the Act does not tell schools what discipline they must impose if they catch students using or even if schools must require discipline at all. They are simply required to have a policy discouraging drug (and alcohol) abuse. In the dry language of the statute, the school must certify “to the Secretary of Education that the institution has adopted and has implemented a program to prevent the use of illicit drugs and the abuse of alcohol.”

Typically, school policies are limited to on-campus usage, but not always. Institutions of higher education increasingly claim the right to regulate their students’ off-campus lives as well.

There is both a legal gray area and discretion as to what schools must do to enforce their rules. Some states, like Connecticut and Rhode Island, also have state laws that prohibit schools from discriminating against medical marijuana users.

For example, the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (known as PUMA, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21a-408 et seq.) prohibits campuses from “enrolling or refusing to enroll” a student due to medical marijuana use. It prohibits landlords from evicting medical marijuana users for the same reason.

Typically, the patient needs to be over 18 and have been diagnosed with a condition for which medical cannabis can provide some relief. If the schools have a “zero tolerance” policy on campus and you are disciplined as a result, you can actually recover damages under Connecticut law.

Sea Change Looming?

However, there may be an end in sight: on November 20, 2019, a United States House of Representatives panel approved a bill that would remove marijuana from the federal drug schedule. Critics have suggested that the bill goes “too far” and is unlikely to pass the Senate. Congress is notoriously dysfunctional, even where laws don’t really follow “red” state/“blue” state divides. Nevertheless, it shows the remarkable sea change regarding society’s views on marijuana.

If you have been discriminated against regarding medical marijuana usage on your Connecticut college campus, hire an attorney.

While everyone should use common sense in medical marijuana use (i.e., don’t let it interfere with the substantive work associated with your studies), you may be able to make your school pay for taking disciplinary action against you.