Beacon Breakdown: What’s the case with cannabis on-campus?

Nearly two years after the legalization of recreational cannabis use in Massachusetts the college remains substance-free in accordance with federal laws that prohibit any form of cannabis use.

With the advent of legal cannabis and recreational dispensaries in Massachusetts, the Office of Community Behavior and Student Conduct seeks new ways to deal with potential student use on campus. New initiative Cannabis Scent Notices aims to help resident assistants report and track the usage of the drug in students’ dorm rooms.

Cannabis use among college students in the United States reached its highest percentage in the past three decades in 2016, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In the study, 39 percent of full-time college students indicated that they used cannabis at least once in the prior 12 months, and 22 percent indicated that they used at least once in the prior 30 days.

The Berkeley Beacon wanted to answer some frequently asked questions surrounding cannabis law as it relates to Emerson students.

If a student is 21, can they legally smoke cannabis?

Although Massachusetts considers the recreational use of cannabis legal on the state level for people 21 or older, federal law still outlaws it. Federal law prohibits medical or recreational cannabis use on government-owned or public property like Boston Common and the Public Garden.

Emerson abides by the U.S. Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and the U.S. Drug-Free Schools and Communities Amendments of 1989. These two federal policies require the college to remain a substance-free campus despite the contradiction with Massachusetts state law.

This means students aged 21 or over using cannabis on campus violate federal law and Emerson’s Student Code of Community Standards, according to the Assistant Director of Community Standards and Student Conduct Melissa Woolsey.

The college must abide by these federal drug laws in order to maintain federal funds and allocate financial aid like FAFSA to students, according to Woolsey. If the college changed its code of conduct to reflect Massachusetts law regarding cannabis it would jeopardize the college’s access to federal funds.  

Massachusetts state law deems recreational use illegal for users under the age of 21. If an Emerson student under 21 decides to consume cannabis off-campus they violate the college’s policy and Massachusetts state law.

Suffolk University also abides by these same policies.

What happens if a student gets caught with cannabis on campus?

Junior Libby Sweeney, a resident assistant in the Paramount Center, said RAs assess and collect details on the situation upon obtaining visual proof that a student violated on-campus cannabis policies.

From there the Emerson College Police Department retrieves the illegal substances and paraphernalia. An RA will then file an incident report with the Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct stating the student(s) involved and facts obtained. 

“It’s written as a third-person write-up,” Sweeney said. “It’s just supposed to recount the facts of the situation.”    

Woolsey said directors at the Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct read over the report and determine whether or not the student violated college conduct policies—taking past conduct history into account.

When a student breaks campus cannabis policies the Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct assigns a hearing officer to the incident. The student then meets with representatives from the Office of Community Behavior and Student Conduct to discuss their use.

The gravity of disciplinary action depends on the amount of cannabis possessed by the student and the severity of the situation. Sanctions vary from warnings and academic probation to expulsion. They rarely resort to expulsion, according to Woolsey.

“For example, a student in possession of a joint containing a gram of cannabis is a lot different than if we searched a student’s room and found several ounces of cannabis and paraphernalia,” Woolsey said. “The sanction for possessing a joint would likely be a warning, whereas signs of possession and distribution would result in probation up to a year.”

Increasing Dialogue, Outreach  

Woolsey said her office focuses on increasing the dialogue between administration and students held responsible for cannabis use. The college’s student-taught cannabis education program “Let’s Be Blunt: A Joint Effort” discusses the positive and negative effects of cannabis—relaxation, euphoria, laziness, and paranoia—and responsible substance use on a cannabis-user-heavy campus.

“I’ve done a lot of research,” Woolsey said. “What I can say is the cannabis use amongst Emerson students is way above the national average.”

Woolsey said students with anxiety or other mental health disorders often use cannabis as a coping method.

“Its effects of relaxation and euphoria can lead to dependency,” Woolsey said.

Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services offer both substance abuse prevention and recovery programs to help students who may suffer from an addiction.

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