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Medical Marijuana Poses Problems for Colleges
05/11/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon
Robyn Smith Using Vaporizor

This year a dozen states will consider legalizing medical marijuana. If measures are approved in Massachusetts and Connecticut most of New England could soon be considered cannabis friendly. And that will run counter to federal law, which still considers marijuana as dangerous as heroin. Some colleges also said it also puts them in a bind because following state law could jeopardize their federal funding.

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It's estimated that as many as a third of college students smoke pot. But for 25-year-old Robyn Smith, "reefer madness" has taken a whole new meaning at the University of Southern Maine where he's a part-time junior who lives off campus and who has a doctor's authorization to use medical marijuana.

"Gotta make sure the keys are out of the ignition or else it's driving under the influence," Smith said.

Smith is sitting in what could be described as his mobile pharmacy his mother's borrowed SUV. He's parked across the street from the school so he can self-medicate without violating laws that prohibit both smoking and drug use on school grounds. Maine is one of 16 states that has legalized medical marijuana but it's still not permitted on the USM campus. So Smith either goes home to use or retreats to the privacy of a parked car.

Susan Sharon: "What strain are you using today?"

Robyn Smith: "So, I have some Blueberry Widow, right now, which is a hybrid. I tend to use it alot because I have more of it than the other strains."

An Army veteran who spent 15 months in Afghanistan, Smith has been diagnosed with anxiety, a joint disorder and migraines that are so severe he occasionally winds up in the emergency room. He's currently prescribed half a dozen painkillers and other drugs to ease his symptoms. He's free to bring those on campus. But he said he doesn't like the way they make him feel and worries about becoming dependent on them. Instead, he prefers medical marijuana.

"I've known for a long time that marijuana relaxes me. And the first time I used the medical marijuana, which is much stronger, I was told to use a very small dose. So I took two or three hits and I have to said that it made me feel quite a bit better than the painkillers or the migraine medication or the muscle relaxers," said Smith.

University administrators said they sympathize but they can't afford to break the federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act and the Drug Free Workplace Act by allowing Smith or other student patients to use pot.

"It's not a question of right or wrong, ethical or not ethical, any of that. Right now we just can't run the risk of losing federal dollars," said Stephen Nelson. He oversees student misconduct at USM. He said the university receives more than $60-million dollars worth of federal financial aid alone. Couple that "Title 4" money with research funding and Nelson said hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake. The U.S. Department of Education did not return telephone calls for this story. But Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the group NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said Nelson's fear of losing federal funding is exaggerated.

"There's no historical precedent for such...and just from the moral, pragmatic point of view." St. Pierre said. "If a student patient can have really dangerous and addictive drugs like percoset, vicodin and morphine than there's no moral or pharmacological reason why they can't have a mildly psychotropic vegetable matter."

Unlike percoset and vicodin, marijuana is outlawed as a Schedule 1 drug because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it has a high potential for abuse and there is "no currently accepted medical use" for it. But as more states move to allow medical cannabis and hundreds of thousands of patients are using it on doctors' recommendations that designation may become less defensible. Dr. Wendy Chapkis is a sociology professor at USM and author of the book, "Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine."

"The argument that it has a really high potential for abuse is undercut by the federal government's own actions on synthetic THC, the substance within cannabis that gets you high."

That synthetic form, also available by prescription, is known as Marinol. It was originally approved as a Schedule 2 drug and has since been downgraded to a Schedule 3, a less restrictive category because of its low potential for abuse.

"So if the most psychoactive properties are safe enough that the DEA believes it can be a Schedule 3 drug how can we possibly continue to argue that Marijuana should remain a Schedule 1 substance? It makes no sense."

But until that changes college administrators don't have much choice said Jill Creighton, coordinator of community standards and wellness at the University of Colorado, Denver. Creighton has been presenting on the topic of medical marijuana to college administrators around the country for the past several years.

"Since there's no precedent set, you know there is potential for a school or college to said: Hey, we'e gonna give this a shot. Some student codes of conduct are much more lax about marijuana use in general," said Creighton. "But the assumption is that if we were to allow medical marijuana on our campuses we would then be jeopardizing our Title 4 funding."

Robyn Smith said he won't wait for USM to relax its policy. He plans to stop taking classes on campus and stick with online courses next year.

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