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Stirring the Pot: A marijuana-legalization group has joined campaign against campus drinking - sorta
Written by Jennifer Jacobson - Chronicle of Higher Education   
Friday, 16 June 2006
Matt says his parents told him they did not mind if he smoked marijuana as long as he did not do anything stupid or get caught.
He got caught. In September, undercover police officers arrested him outside a dormitory at the University of Maryland at College Park after he bought an eighth of an ounce from a friend. Matt, a freshman, spent 14 hours in jail, and the university eventually barred him from campus housing.

Like many colleges, Maryland punishes students more severely for illegal drug use than for underage drinking. Had Matt, 18, been busted for sipping a beer instead of buying pot, he could have stayed in his dorm. The university would only have required him to attend its alcohol-education program.

Matt believes that discrepancy is unfair. This spring he gladly voted for a student referendum that urged administrators to reduce the penalties for marijuana smoking and possession, making them the same as those for underage drinking. The proposal was the handiwork of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, a Denver-based nonprofit group that seeks to legalize marijuana. The group, known as Safer, has helped students organize and pass referenda at Maryland, Florida State University, and three other colleges, and it hopes to prompt similar votes on at least 20 other campuses next year.

The campaign has led some student sympathizers to publicize the dangers of heavy drinking on their campuses. They argue that students cannot die from smoking marijuana, as they can from abusing alcohol, and that smoking pot causes far fewer disturbances than guzzling booze. Why, they ask, impose lighter sentences for alcohol violations?

"Every day ... you can walk around the dorms, you can see the damage done by drunk people," says Matt, who describes the broken ceiling tiles and vomit-covered bathroom floors he has come upon after a particularly rowdy night.

Administrators at Maryland are not bound by the referendum in which Matt voted, however, and officials there and at other colleges say they have no interest in changing the rules. Because smoking marijuana is illegal, administrators say, they must punish students who break the law.

"If we think somebody's dealing drugs from our residence halls," says Mary B. Coburn, vice president for student affairs at Florida State, "we don't want them there."

Building a Campaign

Enter Steve Fox. Executive director of Safer, he says college students desperately need an education on the dangers of alcohol. And proponents of legalizing marijuana, he believes, are just the people to provide it.

According to a 2002 study commissioned by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Task Force on College Drinking, among college students ages 18 to 24, drinking contributes to an estimated 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 sexual assaults or date rapes each year.

Because universities with large student populations are particularly prone to such incidents, Safer started its campaign at two prominent state institutions. In March 2005, at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University at Fort Collins, the organization got its referendum put to a vote for the first time, just six months after alcohol-related student deaths had rocked both campuses.

At Boulder, 68 percent of the students who voted supported the referendum; 58 percent did so at Colorado State. As is typical in student elections, however, voter turnouts were low. At Boulder only about 5,800 of some 30,000 students cast ballots.

Safer took its campaign to three other campuses this spring, working with two other groups — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. At each college, one of the advocacy groups contacts student leaders and urges them to include a referendum on the issue in a forthcoming student election. The referendum asks students whether they agree that university sanctions for student use and possession of marijuana should be no greater than those for underage drinking.

Although the campaign has not resulted in any policy changes, Tom Angell, campaigns director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, hopes that future votes will prompt administrators to re-examine their penalties. He would like to see more colleges punish marijuana violations internally.

Since marijuana is a controlled substance, university officials often immediately call on local police departments to arrest students who have been caught with it. By contrast, colleges typically do not involve outside law-enforcement authorities for underage-drinking offenses.

Mr. Angell says turning students over to the criminal-justice system for a first-time drug violation is unfair. A drug conviction, no matter how minor, automatically strips students of their financial aid because of a provision in the Higher Education Act. That penalty alone, he says, can force students to drop out of college and put them at much greater risk of substance abuse.

"Blocking access to education," says Mr. Angell, "makes our nation's drug problem worse, not better."

'Change the Behavior'

Robert N. Maust, coordinator of Boulder's alcohol-education program, says the Safer referendum appealed to students' sense of rebellion. "It was," he says, "a very clever public-relations ploy by nonstudents."

But he and other college officials say groups like Safer have misunderstood campus policies.

At Boulder students who violate either the alcohol policy or drug policy receive a one-year probation, during which they must enroll in the university's alcohol- and drug-education programs or perform community service, says Mr. Maust. A second violation while on probation results in a one-semester suspension.

While university officials typically call local police for marijuana violations, students caught with the drug are not necessarily barred from university housing. "If you get kicked out of the housing and you're still enrolled in the school, all we've done is moved you off campus," Mr. Maust says. "It hasn't changed your behavior."

Linda M. Clement, Maryland's vice president for student affairs, says the penalties for alcohol and marijuana do differ at her institution, but for good reasons.

For a first-time offense for marijuana use, a student is suspended for one year and removed from university housing. The student can avoid suspension by pledging good behavior for the next two years and undergoing drug testing in a substance-abuse program through the campus health center.

"Our first response," says Ms. Clement, "is always education to change the behavior."

For a second marijuana offense, the penalty is automatic suspension for one year.

For first offenses for underage drinking, the university refers students to its alcohol-education program. For a second alcohol violation, a student loses university housing.

"We consider the issue of drugs ... a potentially more dangerous situation" than that of alcohol, Ms. Clement says, "because with drugs and with distribution of drugs typically comes a criminal element."

Crime and Punishment

That perception may prove difficult to change, regardless of how many students support the Safer campaign.

Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, applauds the student activists who have worked on the referenda for their civic engagement, but wonders if they are being used by national groups with larger agendas.

"Students get on the bandwagon for anything that looks like a civil-rights" issue, she says.

For Matt, the Maryland student who was arrested for purchasing pot, the issue is personal. A Prince George's County judge put him on probation and sentenced him to 24 hours of community service. Matt, his parents, and his lawyer also attended a university hearing, in which he learned he could avoid suspension if he participated in the drug-testing program.

Although students who are caught with illegal drugs are to be immediately barred from their dorms, a graduate student assigned to investigate Matt's case was sympathetic. He helped Matt, an honors student who studies computer engineering, stay on the campus for the fall semester. After that, the freshman moved into an off-campus apartment for the spring.

Since December Matt has had to call the student health center every Monday and Thursday to see whether he needs to take a random drug test that day. "It's a hassle," he says. "It's also kind of humiliating."

Nonetheless, what he describes as a "draconian" punishment may not change his behavior in the way Maryland officials might have hoped. The only lesson he learned from the experience, he says, is that he should be more careful the next time he smokes pot. Matt says he might do just that as soon as the university halts its drug testing for the summer.
Section: Students
Volume 52, Issue 41, Page A34

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