Marijuana decriminalized, but pot on campus is still a risk

After the decriminalization of marijuana this summer, students at the state’s four-year colleges face more lenient sanctions under the law if caught with a small amount pot, but they can expect unchanging disciplinary standards on campus.

The University of Connecticut and the Connecticut State University System will not change their judicial proceedings or possible sanctions for students caught with marijuana, even though state law made less than half an ounce a low-level offense starting July 1.

“It’s still illegal,” said Bernard Kavaler, the assistant vice chancellor for public affairs at the state university system.

UConn will continue to evaluate marijuana use based on its Student Code and Office of Community Standards, which was not changed to reflect the lessened criminal penalties, UConn spokesman Michael Kirk said.

According to the Student Code, possible sanctions for the possession or use of illegal drugs can result in university suspension. Kirk said suspension is not always the case, however. Community Standards evaluates each violation of the Student Code on a case-by-case basis.

“A number of different factors are considered, including whether or not a student was cooperative, the student’s knowledge and forethought involved in committing the violations; the student’s prior conduct history UConn; whether there were multiple violations that create a cumulative effect; and the severity of the violation, among other things,” Kirk said in an e-mail. “So there is no one-size-fits-all sanction.”

Many colleges and universities follow their own administrative processes, not modeled after the typical criminal/court process, in determining student violations and subsequent disciplinary action. UConn, for example, doesn’t factor a student’s criminal behavior into their administrative processes when evaluating a student violation. UConn’s Community Standards website for frequently asked questions about the Student Code reads, “The criminal process focuses on violations of the law. The University’s process focuses on violations of the University of Connecticut’s community standards.”

UConn’s community standards stipulate that illegal drugs aren’t permitted on campus. Students also can’t consume alcohol on campus except in licensed premises, even if they are 21 or older. A student caught with less than half an ounce of marijuana will get away without a criminal record, but the university may add the violation to the student’s academic record.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the marijuana decriminalization bill in June after much debate in the House and Senate. If someone is caught with less than a half ounce of marijuana, police will confiscate the drug and issue a $150 fine. Tickets for subsequent offenses range from $200 to $500 and the violator pays the fine through the mail like a speeding ticket.

Before the bill, the possession of any amount of marijuana in Connecticut could result in a fine of up to $1,000 and a criminal record on the first offense. The mark of a criminal record can negatively affect anyone applying for jobs, financial aid for college or anyone trying to join the military.

Previously, students with a drug conviction on their record were required to indicate the conviction on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), disqualifying them from receiving financial aid.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said a “conviction” means only a conviction on a student’s record. Students caught with less than half an ounce of marijuana will still maintain a clear criminal record, allowing them to self-certify their eligibility for federal aid.

Faced with a new state law, UConn administrators feel the need to educate incoming students this fall about the legislation to clear up any misconceptions.

For example, the training and education of UConn’s resident assistants will incorporate information about the new legislation, said John Saddlemire, UConn’s vice president for Student Affairs. He said that students, particularly out-of-state students, might not fully understand certain parts of the law.

UConn’s Department of Residential Life trains a paraprofessional student staff of almost 300 resident assistants each year to help with student needs, provide student resources and enforce university policies and procedures within on-campus housing. Students returning to campus this fall can probably expect a few educational sessions about the new legislation.

“We need to be ready to educate them about these changes this fall,” Saddlemire said. “One time when we have a captive audience is during move-in day. We need to get the word out as much as possible, through floor meetings, postering, etc. Most of our students are residential, so that works to our advantage.”

Samuel Tracy, president of UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government and former president of UConn’s Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, was part of a group of student leaders who met with a small ad-hoc committee of administrators this summer to discuss changes stemming from the legislation. The ad-hoc committee consisted of administrators from UConn’s Student Affairs, Department of Residential Life and Community Standards.

Tracy said some students will misinterpret the law, thinking that less than half an ounce is legal or that exactly half an ounce will pass as decriminalized under the new legislation. He said he thinks many students will also fail to realize that anyone under age 21 who receives a citation for less than half an ounce will also have their driver’s license suspended for 60 days.

“A lot of people don’t realize all the details,” Tracy said.

“The main thing that came out of the conversation is that there is a real need for more conversation,” Saddlemire said.

The ad-hoc committee also asked for feedback from student leadership on how the university should respond to cases of suspected marijuana use on campus. Before the new legislation, when resident assistants suspected students smoking marijuana, they normally called campus police.

The committee and student leadership considered granting resident assistants more discretion in a situation of suspected use instead of immediately calling the police. Saddlemire said he doesn’t anticipate a change in university policy, but it’s a discussion currently on the table.

“Now we are questioning, do we want to continue that approach?” Saddlemire said. “My sense is that we will continue to operate in the manner we have in the past. The difference will be that the actions of the police will change in accordance with the law.”

“While there’s been a modification, we’re still talking about an illegal behavior,” he added. “We want to discourage all drug use on campus.”