MyStudentBody - Medical Marijuana: Campus Policies and the Law

Medical Marijuana: Campus Policies and the Law

A pill bottle spilling marijuana on a prescription pad

As of November 2011, 16 states and the District of Columbia had legalized the medical use of marijuana, allowing people with medical authorization to possess small amounts of cannabis; in some cases, these people are also allowed to grow it. ( maintains a current list of medical-marijuana states.) Six more states had medical-marijuana legislation pending.

At the same time, however, marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. The United States Department of Justice has not presented a clear or consistent enforcement policy for situations where medical use of marijuana is legal under state or local law.

This conflict puts colleges in a uniquely uncomfortable position. Many colleges are state institutions; since they receive federal funds, though, they may have to adhere to state and federal laws. The marijuana policy at California State University at Bakersfield recognizes both state and federal laws; it prohibits marijuana possession and use on campus due to federal regulations.

Rather than giving up its campus marijuana ban in the face of the state's very liberal medical marijuana laws, The University of Colorado at Boulder created an exception to its rule barring first-year students from living off-campus. Responding to the threat of a lawsuit from a student who held a medical marijuana card, UC Boulder decided first-year students who were marijuana cardholders could live off campus—preserving students' rights to medical marijuana, but also preserving the school's cannabis-free campus.

Setting Drug Policies in the Age of Medical Marijuana

Because the situation under state and federal laws is in flux, all schools need to address the issue of medical marijuana explicitly. Communications about drug use, residence life, and health services should clearly state whether marijuana is allowed on campus for medical use, and whether students who use marijuana off-campus for medical reasons are violating the school's drug policy. While this issue is being resolved on the federal and state level, you may benefit from establishing an ongoing task force to set up or update your college's medical marijuana policy.

When school policies change—especially if they become more restrictive, or if they're more restrictive than local laws—be sure to notify everyone in the college community. Use both social and traditional media to get the message out. Don't forget to notify parents, too.


While some state laws allow the use of marijuana only for medical purposes, other state and local regulations decriminalize the possession and use of cannabis, regardless of purpose. Decriminalization typically makes marijuana possession an offense that's punished by a civil fine rather than jail time. In some places, law enforcement is directed to give cannabis offenses a low priority.

Decriminalization of marijuana possession and use presents fewer conflicts to resolve in setting college drug policy. Since there is no claim of medical need, schools don't have to accommodate users for compassionate or health reasons. Decriminalization does not make marijuana legal, however: it just reduces the legal consequences. College policies that cover illegal activity, health risks, and intoxication still apply.

Marijuana is still the most widely used drug (after alcohol) among high school students, including those students bound for college. Undergraduates matriculating in a state or locality that has decriminalized marijuana, or that allows medical marijuana use, need to know that cannabis is still illegal—and  like that most popular of legal drugs, alcohol, it carries other risks. Your alcohol and drug abuse prevention program needs to cover the dangers of cannabis, legal and otherwise, even where its use may be decriminalized. MyStudentBody Essentials is one such prevention education course that covers both alcohol and drugs, including marijuana.


California State University. (2011). CSUB Alcohol and Illicit Drug Policy. Retrieved November 30, 2011, from 

Hamilton College. (2011). Student handbook: Alcohol and Illegal Drug Policy. Retrieved November 30, 2011, from 

Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005, June 24). DASIS Report Series, Differences in Marijuana Admissions Based on Source of Referral: 2002. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from (2011). 16 Legal Medical Marijuana States and DC: Laws, Fees, and Possession Limits. Retrieved November 30, 2011, from 

Sherry A. (2008, September 20). Student fights CU over hazy marijuana law. Denver Post. Retrieved November 30, 2011, from