Recreational marijuana is now legal in Massachusetts. So just like cigarette smokers are free to light up their cancer sticks, marijuana lovers can also light up their anti-cancer spliffs, unless of course, you are on a college campus in the state.
While colleges in Massachusetts have no problem with students smoking dangerous cigarettes in the designated smoking areas, they are not so kind to the no risk marijuana.
Massachusetts colleges and universities prohibit marijuana on campus across the state, despite voters approving recreational marijuana more than two years ago.
The reasons to ban it vary, but schools by and large invoke federal law and landlord status to make sure the drug – ever popular among college students – is not allowed.
“Colleges have landlord privilege and Massachusetts law says any landlord can ban marijuana from its facilities,” explained Jim Borghesani, who worked on the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana.
The bans have not been the topic of much controversy in what’s proven to be a slow rollout of the recreational marijuana industry. The use and purchase age is 21, said Borghesani, which eliminates most college students from legally consuming the drug anyway.
But legal and age restrictions have historically failed to prevent marijuana use among college students, and the trend continues. About 21.2 percent of college students last year reported having consumed marijuana within the prior month, making it the most popular drug after alcohol (62.2 percent), according to a 2018 report sponsored by The National Institute of Drug Abuse at The National Institutes of Health. In Oregon, one study found students were using more marijuana since its 2015 legalization.
Given its prevalence in higher education, some college students feel like young adults have unfairly been excluded from what’s become a monumental shift in how people view the drug.
Ian Vescera, a Stonehill College senior, doesn’t consume marijuana. But he’s lived on campus for four years and remembers clearly when Massachusetts residents voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016. The student body was intrigued, he said, but the school was swift in making it clear marijuana would not be embraced.
“Right after the vote, we received an email from the school about why it wouldn’t be permitted on campus, which was because of federal funding,” Vescera said. “People were pretty bummed out.”
Stonehill was not alone. In the wake of legalization, colleges and universities quickly pointed to the millions of dollars students receive in federal funding. The funding, schools argue, could be at stake because marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
In 2017, about 255,200 college students in Massachusetts received a combined $2.8 billion in federal loans and grants, according to an annual report by the Office of Federal Student Aid, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. The funding totaled more than any other New England state, and was the 13th most in the country.
Schools, including Clark University in Worcester, make clear the potential fallout from being convicted of illegal drug use.
“Persons convicted of drug possession under state or federal law are ineligible for federal student grants and loans for up to one year after the first conviction, five years after the second,” according to the Clark website. “The penalty for distributing drugs is loss of benefits for five years after the first, 10 years after the second, permanently after the third conviction.”
The rationale, however, falls short with Borghesani, who says the concerns are unrealistic when it comes to marijuana.
“Campuses have been dealing with cannabis on their campuses for decades,” he said. “I don’t see the feds saying, ‘Somebody has used cannabis in your facility, so we’re not going to give you funding.’”
Borghesani nonetheless doesn’t expect the rules to change anytime soon, but says it’s possible schools could one day open marijuana facilities if social consumption is allowed. Social consumption, meaning the legal use of marijuana in public places, is currently prohibited in Massachusetts, although state regulators have considered allowing it.
The idea isn’t so farfetched, he added, taking into consideration how some schools allow on-campus bars. The Thirsty Ear Pub, by example, offers alcoholic beverages at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
“Eventually, you might see the easing of stigma as it relates to having a consumption site for people 21 or older, just like alcohol,” Borghesani said. “But that will be a wait-and-see type of thing.”
Indeed, students like Vescera will have long left school before any such facility is allowed. And despite retail sales of recreational marijuana beginning this month, school policies don’t look different at all.
“I don’t think all that much has changed,” Vescera said. “People are upset and disappointed by it.”