Colorado and Washington Legalize Pot, Putting Colleges in a Bind

November 07, 2012

Officials of Colorado and Washington's flagship universities say new laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults in those states are unlikely to change campus policies.

Both laws, adopted through ballot measures on Tuesday, allow people over the age of 21 to possess small amounts of pot for personal use. They are the nation's first laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

At issue for colleges in both states is the apparent disconnect between the new state laws and existing federal laws.

"Universities are sometimes sandwiched between state and federal regulations," said Bronson Hilliard, a spokesman for the University of Colorado at Boulder. Despite the new state measure, he pointed out, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. And since most colleges receive federal funds, they are required to abide by federal regulations that bar the illegal use of drugs and alcohol on their campuses.

With those disparities in mind, campus administrators are waiting for guidance from state officials on how the new state-constitutional amendment will be put into effect, and from federal officials regarding how the new law stacks up against federal policies, Mr. Hilliard said.

Boulder officials were hardly caught off-guard. Advocacy groups pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana have kept the issue in the news in Colorado for several years. Voters rejected a similar measure in 2006.

"It's like any other legislation or constitutional amendment or court ruling," Mr. Hilliard said. "It's just going to take some time to sort out."

One question the campus officials plan to address soon is how—or whether—the new law will affect their response to the annual 4/20 event, a popular "smoke-out" on the campus in favor of the legalization of marijuana. Last April the university cracked down on the gathering, which in past years had attracted thousands of revelers and blanketed the campus with a haze of pot smoke.

University officials plan to convene in a few weeks to discuss how to handle next April's event. The new law, Mr. Hilliard said, would very likely be the first item of discussion.

For now, he said, campus policies are unlikely to change. But he also noted that "the fine points of the law" have yet to be interpreted.

'You Can't Have It'

In Washington State, the reaction was similar. Norman G. Arkans, a spokesman for the University of Washington, said the new measure would probably not cause a major shift.

"I can't tell you what's been in the hearts and minds of perhaps hopeful students, but it's not something we've been all that concerned about," he said. "We're a large recipient of federal money. So if there's a conflict here, we have to comply with the federal side of it."

Even so, he said, the new law will compel administrators to adjust how they communicate with students. The challenge will be making sure the students understand that even though the state has loosened its restrictions on possession of marijuana, "you can't have it on campus."

Apart from the legal aspect, relaxed restrictions for marijuana possession can present an opportunity for colleges, said Thomas A. Workman, who has studied the legalization of marijuana and how it affects higher education. The new law might give officials a chance to have meaningful conversations with students about substance use in general—something they have tried to do for years, said Mr. Workman, who is principal communication researcher and evaluator at the American Institutes for Research.

Students are almost certainly bound to have questions about what the new laws mean for them, he said. "We have to be ready for that."