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• Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal under federal law.
• Even though marijuana is illegal, the federal government rarely prosecutes simple marijuana-possession laws, instead leaving that up to states, which may or may not choose to enforce laws against marijuana possession and use.
• Clashes between federal and state laws leave colleges and universities in something of a gray area. However, they have the right to ban the drug under their own campus rules, regardless of what state law may say about marijuana’s legality.
In late March, New York state lawmakers passed — and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed — a bill that legalized recreational marijuana statewide.
Soon after, students at SUNY’s University at Albany received an email from Clarence McNeill, the dean of students, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported on Apr. 7.
In the email, McNeill wrote: "Despite this change to state law, the use and possession of marijuana on UAlbany’s campuses remains prohibited under federal law."
Is it correct that New York state’s recreational marijuana legalization would have no effect on the state’s college campuses? That’s largely correct, but with some legal gray areas, experts say.
While McNeill’s words were addressed specifically to University at Albany students, the same federal law barring marijuana at the University at Albany would also apply to other campuses in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. (McNeill could not be reached for comment.)
The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law that was enacted in 1971. Under the law, marijuana is categorized as a "Schedule I" drug, defined as having "no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse."
Schedule I drugs are classified as illegal, and years-long efforts by marijuana advocates and lawmakers to change that classification have not succeeded.
However, there is a bit of a gray area. While federal law designates marijuana as an illegal substance, the federal government isn’t, as a practical matter, enforcing that part of the law today, said Mason Tvert, a communications advisor for Vicente Sederberg LLP and former director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"It’s not like DEA agents are going to come in and make an arrest for individual possession, because then they would have to refer it to the Justice Department and they wouldn’t prosecute that," Tvert said.
Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed.
"The federal government doesn’t really pursue marijuana charges," Caulkins said.
Even if the Biden administration steers clear of changing marijuana’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act, Caulkins said, the administration is unlikely to change the current hands-off prosecution policies for simple marijuana possession.
On the one hand, state, local, and campus police forces that have jurisdiction over campuses in states with legalized recreational marijuana would not have a law to use in arresting students of legal age for simple marijuana possession, Tvert said.
However, it is within a college’s rights to prohibit marijuana possession or use on its campus, and many universities have such policies in place for their students, Caulkins said.
The patchwork of sometimes conflicting laws worries some institutions, Caulkins said.
"There are various federal contractors that are understandably concerned about the inconsistencies between federal and state law and, frankly, between federal law and federal law," Caulkins said.
Tvert said it makes sense for universities to be concerned that federal funding could be at risk if they involve allow marijuana use.
McNeill wrote, "Despite this change to state law, the use and possession of marijuana on … campuses remains prohibited under federal law."
He is correct that marijuana possession and use has been illegal under federal law for four decades.
That said, the federal government does not typically prosecute marijuana possession and use cases, leaving it up to states to either enforce their own laws against marijuana or else legalize the drug within the state’s borders.
However, even in states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, universities can still choose to ban the drug from their campuses.
The statement is accurate but needs additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.
Democrat & Chronicle, "Now that marijuana is legal, can NY college students smoke pot on campus?," April 7, 2021
Phone Interview with Mason Tvert, communications advisor for Vicente Sederberg LLP, April 21, 2021
Phone Interview with Jonathan Caulkins, professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, April 21, 2021
U.S. Pretrial Services Agency Central District of California, "Use of Marijuana by Federal Employees," April 4, 2018
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