State-funded universities follow state law — except when it comes to cannabis. This means real consequences for students. It need not be so.
As it will almost surely be until every federal lawmaker admits that the nation’s experiment with marijuana prohibition didn’t quite work out, Election Day 2018 delivered yet another green wave.
On Nov. 6, voters in Michigan approved Proposal 1, which legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over, by a 56 to 44 percent margin. Elsewhere, medical marijuana won in nearby Missouri and in Mormon-controlled, deep-red Utah.
As the experience of every other state to embark on the marijuana legalization path shows, it will be quite a while before cannabis is available in Michigan stores (to those of us without a medical-marijuana recommendation, at least; Detroit is replete with medical cannabis dispensaries and looks likely to remain so).
That is, nothing will change overnight except for fewer grandmothers with arthritis spending nights in cold jail cells. But if the administrators at state-funded Michigan State University have anything to do with it, nothing will change at all — not now, and not in the future.
Less than a week after the voters whose largess helps pay to keep the lights on at the Big Ten conference’s sixth-largest football stadium, Michigan State officials put out a statement: Marijuana legalization does not apply on campus.
Here’s the statement, via Click On Detroit, but TL;DR: According to Michigan State, Michigan state law does not apply on Michigan State's campus. Got it?
“We would like to remind everyone that this new state law will not change policies prohibiting the use or possession of marijuana on any property owned or managed by MSU, and by MSU’s faculty, staff, or students on any MSU property or during off-campus MSU business or events,” the administrators wrote.
“Marijuana use remains illegal and fully criminalized according to federal law, and MSU is subject to the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendment of 1989," the statement continued. "In addition, the MSU Drug and Alcohol Policy prohibits the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession, and use of controlled substances, illicit drugs, and alcohol on property governed by the Board of Trustees and at any site where university work is performed.”
“Our campus policies comply with federal law,” Central Michigan University President Bob Davies wrote in a memo to students. Defying Davies carries severe consequences: He warned of outright dismissal from school should they defy his will by exercising newfound rights under state law.
How can they do this? How can a public entity determine, unilaterally, that public rules don’t quite apply to them and that they’ll choose to follow some other code instead?
The short answer is because they can — and everyone else is doing it.
As Inside Higher Ed reported, college campuses in Colorado, California, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, and everywhere else marijuana has been legalized have declared themselves marijuana legalization-free zones.
The slightly longer answer is that universities receive federal funding and thus have to follow federal law, under federal drug-free acts cited by MSU.
These are the same laws that employers often cite when justifying failing to hire or outright firing employees or potential hires for using cannabis. But as recent case law has found, workplaces do have to provide "reasonable accommodations" to sick people with medical-marijuana recommendations, federal drug-free laws be damned.
Yet that’s the line of reasoning offered by Michigan State, and it’s one that local marijuana activists are accepting at face value — although, as Insider High Ed also noted, there is no known case of a college campus losing federal funding for choosing to be “lax” — that is, obey state law — on marijuana.
“You can’t sue the school for following federal law,” said Rick Thompson, a board member of Michigan NORML, in an interview with the Free Press. “And federal guidelines clearly prohibit this.”
Except that might not be entirely true. Let’s look at some other state entities that also receive federal funding. Police departments are a good example.
Local police departments apply for and receive federal funding in the form of grants, and often take advantage of federal money to pay for equipment. And local police departments enforce… local law, which — in states like California, Colorado, and now Michigan — says that marijuana is legal for adults 21 and over. To date, not a single police department has reported losing federal funding because it did what it is chartered to do — that is, follow state law.
Airports may provide a clearer example for universities to follow, should they so choose. Denver International Airport has declared itself a marijuana-free zone. Other airports have not — and in either case, if a passenger boarding a flight is found to have any quantity of marijuana, regular procedure for Transportation Security Administration officials is to call local law enforcement. Not the feds, not the military, not the Space Force.
Why are colleges different? Legally, they aren’t, really. Like airports, they are state-chartered institutions, funded primarily by a state. Someone caught breaking the law on a college campus may be subject to arrest by either campus or local police—in either case, law enforcement chartered by a state entity or government. If arrested, they will be tried in state court. If convicted of a serious enough offense, they will go to a state prison.
See the pattern here? Of course you do. So do the colleges, which is why they are choosing to fall back on federal law to justify their retrograde and anachronistic policies — which are in turn causing students real harm.
Contrary to the university's statements, federal law does not rule on campus. Campus cops can’t send a pot-smoking student to federal stir or a campus jail any more than they can get a local cop or prosecutor in a marijuana legalization state to imprison them for an act that is no longer a crime. But they can punish a student with consequences that are.
They can eject them from campus housing. They can take away their student loans, their work-study stipend — and they can kick them out of school. In other words, they can seriously derail a young adult’s life — for following state law, remember, and engaging in behavior that is empirically safer than consuming alcohol, that other college ritual.
And that — for reasons that are spurious and utterly dishonest — is something that colleges appear totally fine with.
Reserving the right to fuck up a college kid’s life for smoking a joint is apparently within a university’s rights. There’s a distinction here any freshman philosophy student would grasp: It is their prerogative. It has not been proven that it is a university’s essential, compulsory duty.
It is possible that these hard-line stances are merely preemptive cover-your-ass moves university presidents feel they need to take to keep the feds away. That may be so. In which case, this is merely a demonstration of moral cowardice rather than draconian evil. Neither is much to be proud of.