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Cannabis Use on Campus: Law Enforcement

Health, Safety, and Well-being Policy and Advocacy
October 27, 2023 Reni Mokrii Lafayette College

This is the sixth and final post in a series of blog posts about cannabis use on campus in connection with recent state legalization policies. The first post provided an overview of state and federal cannabis legislation and the implications these policies have on higher education. Posts two through four were dedicated to the issue of cannabis education on campus–its urgency, relevant leadership roles, strategies to communicate with students about cannabis use, and guidelines to make cannabis use safer. The fifth post discussed current challenges and opportunities cannabis research and advocacy have in relation to higher education. This post is intended to provide an overview of some law enforcement practices and the role of public safety in cannabis education and prevention on campus. As a reminder, NASPA is a nonpartisan organization, and this material is published for educational purposes only. 

In this final post, the reader will learn about:

  • The evolving role and challenges faced by public safety practitioners as cannabis educators

  • Changes in the operational public safety landscape following legalization of cannabis

  • The ways that law enforcement officers can work with administrators and peer educators on cannabis education

The Influence of Legalization 

Legalization has significantly reshaped public safety efforts regarding cannabis use on campus. Although cannabis remains a Schedule I substance and its use and sale is nationally prohibited on college campuses under the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, enforcement varies in states and localities where medicinal and/or adult use  is legalized. Enforcement is influenced by a number of factors such as the student’s age, type of cannabis, the method of use, location on campus, and potential risks of secondhand exposure. 

Here are some examples of questions and concerns that campus law enforcement grapple with  in states where cannabis has been legalized: 

  • The complexity of law enforcement roles:  Campus law enforcement consists of a network of several departments and facilities both on campus and off campus, encompassing public safety agencies, college police, and city police depending on the institution. The role of each agency varies from campus to campus depending on the school size, type of area, and local law enforcement management. 

  • Different implications of on and off-campus housing and property:  Campuses may not always provide students with transparent information regarding what type of housing is considered on and off campus. Most legal interpretations of the DFSCA stipulate that students must abstain from cannabis use during the academic year regardless of  location.  

  • The variation of offenses:  The third blog of the series discussed one avenue for raising students’ awareness of campus policies through the disclosure of  guidelines on an institution’s website. However, in the case of law enforcement, the high variation of offenses and the lack of federal guidelines for public safety results in a situationally-dependent approach for handling offenses.  

  • The specificity of addressing medicinal cannabis offenses: Addressing medicinal cannabis offenses seems even more complex for law enforcement administrators compared to recreational cannabis offenses. According to the DFSCA, both medicinal and adult use of cannabis should be strictly prohibited on college campuses. Nevertheless, many professionals feel more hesitant and confused in cases where students have medical cannabis ID cards. Fast-changing state laws result in a lack of the proper training to address the issue, and hinder cooperation in handling offenses with off-campus law enforcement. The issue is also confusing for students with medicinal cannabis IDs who may be unknowingly in violation of the DFSCA. 

  • The lack of awareness about the DFSCA among campus professionals and students: Knowledge of the DFSCA and its implications for higher education remains limited outside of campus law enforcement and residence life. This increases the risk that student affairs administrators and faculty may unintentionally spread misinformation and further necessitates comprehensive education of the DFSCA across campus to ensure compliance.  

  • The lack of students’ understanding  of their state cannabis policy: While adult use of cannabis on campus remains unlawful in states where cannabis is legalized, students are often unaware that they are engaging in a criminal offense. In addition, students may not be familiar with legal specificities such as the amount of possession, potency rates, methods of use, and so forth. In the situations when students are breaking state law, campus law enforcement is allowed to involve the city police.   

  • Potential advocacy work: While other issues may take precedence, clarity regarding cannabis use policies and enforcement is a critical advocacy issue. Thorough and updated guidelines on both federal and state policies could decrease inconsistencies and unintended consequences in addressing offenses. 

Public Safety and Cannabis Education 

Here is a short list of promising practices  in cannabis education to foster a safe and informed environment: 

  1. Creating better guidelines for resident advisors. Most importantly, resident advisors should know how to address offenses, including whom they should inform, if they see a potential offense. Resident advisors should be equipped with a functional knowledge of DFSCA implications, state policy, and law enforcement practices on their campus, and should be prepared to share information about these policies with their residents. 

  2. Including college staff and faculty in DFSCA training. Some law enforcement administrators have shared concerns regarding an overall lack of awareness of federal and state policies that may impact campus use on campus. Expanding training for faculty and staff across campus can decrease the risks of spreading misinformation. 

  3. Raising awareness of off-campus cannabis use. Educating students on the specificities of off-campus cannabis use policies may prevent violations that transgress both federal and state laws.