AMHERST — At a picnic table at Hampshire College, a group of first-year students sat talking at a designated-smoking area. After a few minutes, one pulled out a medicine bottle filled with marijuana and started to roll a joint.
“Weed helps me get through a wealth of issues. Personal issues, academic issues, creative issues,” said Sean, a first-year student who transferred from the University of California Santa Cruz and did want his last name used for fear of disciplinary action. “It’s a lot better than drinking because I don’t feel terrible afterwards.”
As tangy-smelling smoke floated across the table, the students talked in the late summer sunshine. As a campus police car drove by, they made no effort to hide their marijuana.
It’s been two years since Massachusetts voters approved legalizing marijuana for adults over 21, and state officials are now starting to approve retail pot sales. But on campuses across the state, administrators have a dilemma: they follow federal law, which prohibits people from using marijuana on the property of educational institutions.
At risk? Millions of dollars in federal funding, which schools rely on to pay for everything from student aid to research.
“Obviously, there’s inconsistency between states and federal laws in the states where marijuana is being both decriminalized and legalized,” said Vaughan Rees, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard.
The predicament creates challenges for college administrators and a strange tension for students who use pot. Federal law trumps state law, but shouldn’t state law trump campus policy?
“This is why federal policies in particular about drug legalization are a bad idea,” said Jeffrey A. Miron, a Harvard economist who studies drug legalization, “because then you’re led into these conflicts between state and federal policies that are just not resolvable.”
He said that colleges would have to “expel large fractions of their student body” to implement campus policies, which “is just not going to happen.”
“They’re giving a tiny fraction of people a slap on the wrist,” he said. “We’re going to persist with widespread disobedience but minimal enforcement.”
Miron’s assessment squares with the experiences for students on campus.
“While marijuana is not legal on campus, it’s not heavily enforced,” said Alivia Caruso, 21, a third-year student at Hampshire in an interview in Northampton. “There are so many people who smoke at Hampshire that Hampshire tends to, I find, in more minor situations, turn a blind eye.”
Students from several colleges said marijuana policies felt inconsistent, as schools allow students of legal age to drink alcohol in the dorms.
“We’ve been steeped in the alcohol model for so long, that if you’re an American, you drink,” said Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and pioneer in legalization advocacy. “If they were going to use something, it should be cannabis, not alcohol. It’s safer, but it’s also a much more interesting high.”
Campuses across the state bring in millions of dollars every year in federal funding. If federal drug laws are broken, schools are in jeopardy of losing that money, due to the 1989 Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. Hampshire, for example, receives more than $10 million in federal funding annually.
“It’s not that Hampshire College policy trumps state law; it’s that Hampshire College is supporting its students for the need for federal funding,” said Susie Mitton Shannon, associate dean of students and director of residential life at Hampshire. “We don’t want to put that funding in jeopardy in any way by trumping federal law.”
All colleges and universities that receive federal funding maintain the same stance: no recreational marijuana anywhere on campus, but policies vary.
Some are more out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Harvard specifies that students cannot use marijuana “on Harvard property or as part of a Harvard activity,” which does not extend to free time off campus. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology “does not restrict lawful possession and use of marijuana while off-campus” by those who can legally use.
In Cambridge, where the two schools are located, it is against the law to use marijuana in public. As more than 97 percent of Harvard students and more than 70 percent of MIT students live on campus, there are few places where a student can use without violating either university policy or city ordinance.
Other colleges take a no ifs-ands-or-buts approach. Williams College has a marijuana FAQ page that says cannabis “is prohibited for students entirely by our code of conduct,” on or off campus, recreational or not.
Some colleges come up with creative solutions. The University of Massachusetts Amherst explicitly restricts marijuana and associated paraphernalia on campus, but because a large percentage of students live off campus, it frames its message around safety and productivity. An extensive Web page lists ways to “have fun without marijuana” and reminds students to “keep on track to graduation.”
“From a health perspective, we’re concerned about both of those populations — students on campus and students off,” said Enku Gelaye, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life. “We try to be upfront about what the issues are and give good information about what the law is.”
Legalization has also complicated the issue for students in positions of campus leadership.
“Residential life was put in an uncomfortable place to knock on people’s doors and say, ‘You know you can’t smoke on campus,’ ” said Marta Garcia, 21, who was elected to serve as a house president at Smith College for one year. “I was very much put in the middle of it and it was very awkward.”
This complex web becomes even more tangled with medical marijuana, as only some colleges offer alternatives and some students worry about possible consequences of disclosing their medication.
“Mental health services that exist here are not the best, so people try to find other means of helping themselves,” said V Timeo, 20, a residential adviser at Hampshire. “People just use drugs to self-medicate. This is a high-stress environment.”
Hampshire has not had any students come forward requesting an accommodation for medical marijuana use, according to Gloria Lopez, the dean of students and vice president for student affairs.
Students with medical marijuana can find accommodation at Smith, which requires its students to live on campus unless there’s a medical issue. Two students have requested accommodation off campus for medical marijuana, which college spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel described as “extremely rare.”
“Medical marijuana is not an issue that comes up often,” she said in an e-mail. “When a student has a prescription for medical marijuana, they’re directed to use medical marijuana off campus. To use marijuana on campus would be a violation of federal law.”
Beyond medical marijuana, the prevalence of drug use on campus can create a complicated dynamic between policing and student life.
“Even before decriminalization, you literally had people smoking in the Yard,” said Tynan Jackson, 21, a Harvard junior who does not smoke because he has asthma.
Jackson said that marijuana use is prevalent at Harvard and said students had used fans to blow smoke out their window.
“They receive federal funding so they have to institute this law, but how well they enforce it is really up to them,” he said. “But they’re not going to put you in handcuffs if you have a blunt in your hand.”
Amelia Nierenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AJNierenberg.