“A conversation that I would like to have with my administration is how can we make the punishment for having, for possessing drugs that are now going to be legal in the state more fair and equitable, or less destructive to a student’s educational career,” said Matthew Gillett, student body president at the University of Lynchburg.
Every campus enforces its own penalties for marijuana use and possession, a range of sanctions that includes community service, drug abuse education, eviction from campus housing, revocation of financial aid, and expulsion. At the Lynchburg university of about 2,900 students, suspension is the standard sanction for a first-time violation of drug-related policies, according to the school’s code of student conduct, and further infractions can result in expulsion.
Officials had not shared any changes to the university’s marijuana policy ahead of July 1.
“We shouldn’t punish students so severely for a drug that is considered legal by the state authorities,” Gillett said. “I support the university, and hopefully this will be part of conversations moving forward.”
As long as marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, universities are unlikely to allow the drug on campuses. But in the meantime, some students are pushing against the penalties imposed for marijuana use or possession, asserting that existing policies are draconian and outdated.
“Universities need to get with the times,” said Sarandon Elliott, 21, who is majoring in history and Jewish studies at the University of Virginia. “More broadly, they need to reevaluate how they look at crime, punishment and rules at universities. It ends up being this overpolicing of students and not dealing with the actual issues that are the root causes of why students are getting in trouble.”
With legalization coming, some campuses are evaluating those policies and, in some cases, making changes. At Virginia Commonwealth University, which enrolls more than 29,000 students, officials are updating the code of student conduct to clarify language about federal laws, said Michael Porter, a university spokesman.
University of Virginia officials are looking into their school’s drug policies but have yet to share any announcements, said Brian Coy, a spokesman for the campus of 25,000 students.
Leaders at Virginia Tech recently amended their school’s code of student conduct to exempt from its marijuana policy students who are off campus and not participating in university events. “In short, the policy needed to be updated specifically for students living off campus,” said Mark Owczarski, a spokesman. “We revised our policies to remain aligned with changing state law and existing federal law.”
The consequence for violating marijuana policy is likely to include “substance-related education,” according to Virginia Tech’s code of student conduct. Still, there remains some appetite on campus to eliminate harsh penalties, said Franco Medrano, a junior and vice president of Virginia Tech’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
“Suspending a student, I think that’s a little bit too far,” Medrano said. He said he understands why the school punishes marijuana possession but added that there are greater threats to campus safety — such as sexual assault — and that drug enforcement “should be a very low priority” on the campus of about 36,000 students.
Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession in small quantities last year and now becomes one of 16 states, plus the District, to legalize the plant. And the students attending schools in the Old Dominion join waves of activism on campus drug policies.
In the District, where adults can legally possess up to two ounces of marijuana, Georgetown University students are asking the school to relax its drug penalties.
“Marijuana, which continues to be decriminalized across the nation, is currently being sanctioned by the Office of Student Conduct to the same degree as hardcore drugs, such as narcotics, opiates, and unauthorized prescriptions,” according to the students’ proposal. “These sanctions, which are generally more severe than the university’s alcohol policy, have not deterred students from using marijuana.”
The university of about 19,500 students has not shared any plans to amend its drug policy and, in response to student demands, said it will continue to comply with federal regulations.
“While the District of Columbia has changed marijuana laws in recent years, possession, use or distribution of marijuana, including medical marijuana, remains illegal under federal law,” said Meghan Dubyak, a Georgetown spokeswoman, in an email. “Georgetown’s policies and enforcement for both alcohol and drug violations have remained consistent.”
The struggle between students and universities over drug policies is not new, and, in states including Colorado — one of the first in the nation to legalize marijuana for recreational use — education about drug use and policies has been instrumental in neutralizing tensions.
“We do a lot of outreach,” said Stephanie Hanenberg, assistant vice chancellor for health and wellness at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Incoming freshmen take a drug education course at orientation, and students have access to counseling programs throughout college. First-time violators of the school’s marijuana policy are referred to peer-led workshops, a policy that has helped to reduce recidivism, Hanenberg said.
“The multiple touch points they get with that education seems to, for the most part, keep things pretty well under control,” Hanenberg said, adding that young people also should be aware of the risks of using marijuana. “I don’t think they realize their brain is not done forming and growing. By doing marijuana at this age, it is actually causing more harm because they’re not fully developed where they need to be.”
For students who are old enough to partake in Virginia, some hope to reduce the stigma attached to the drug, said Siatta Kaba, a 21-year-old junior at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Students are doing it, and it’s time to talk about it,” Kaba said. “It’s not something that is taboo. It’s not something that should be hushed up. It’s something that a lot of these students are engaging in.”