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Medical Marijuana License Is No Shield Against Felony Possession Charges on University Campuses

Medical Marijuana user Andre Maestas is charged with felony possession of pot on Arizona State University's campus, even though medical marijuana is legal in the state

by Ted Hesson
Jun 5 2015, 4:35pm

Peter Dasilva/EPA

When Andre Maestas decided he wanted to sit down in the street — the sort of random, possibly dangerous thing college students do sometimes — he didn't think it would lead to his current legal conflagration. He says he was taking a cigarette break from a movie night with a friend on Arizona State University's main campus in Tempe when his troubles first started.

"I was in the process of standing back up to go back into the dorm to finish watching the movie we were watching," he said about the night in March 2014, "and as I was getting back up, that's when the cop's lights went on and he came out and started yelling at me."

The officer searched his wallet, saw that he had a medical marijuana card, and arrested Maestas for blocking the road. The freshman later admitted he had a small weed stash in his dorm room, which turned out to be roughly half a gram.

Medical marijuana is legal in Arizona with the approval of a physician. And while a physician had approved Maestas' use of medical marijuana for chronic back pain, it's illegal to bring marijuana of any kind — medical use or not — onto the campus Arizona State University.

Now Maestas faces a possible felony conviction for possession. He's fighting his case, but if he's found guilty, he could lose his financial aid and possibly be expelled from the university.

"I feel that a medical marijuana program is supposed to provide protections for patients," he said. "Crossing a line to seek higher education and getting onto a campus...should not automatically result in someone being convicted of a felony."

Related: A Woman Lost Custody of Her Son After He Defended Medical Marijuana in School

Andre Maestas, on left, with Maya Tatum and Sarah Saucedo at the Arizona State University Tempe Campus table for the student organization ASU Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Photo via Andre Maestas)

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia but institutions of higher education ban the use of medical marijuana on campus. A student can bring any other prescription drug onto campus — Valium, Xanax, Adderall — so long as it is prescribed. But medical marijuana is different.

"At least to our knowledge, there's not a single campus where any use of marijuana — medical or otherwise — is permissible under any circumstance," said Betty Aldworth, the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which fights to reform drug laws.

The medical marijuana ban on campuses is largely due to the fact that federal grants and other federal funding requires that universities and colleges abide by federal controlled substances laws.

"Federal grants are subject to university compliance with the Drug Free Communities and Schools Act, and the Drug Free Workplace Act," reads Massachusetts' Tufts University medical marijuana policy. "The university is also subject to the Controlled Substances Act. This prohibits the university from allowing any form of marijuana use on campus."

'I feel that a medical marijuana program is supposed to provide protections for patients. Crossing a line to seek higher education and getting onto a campus… should not automatically result in someone being convicted of a felony.'

Mark Johnson, an Arizona State University spokesperson, said the university's policies are rooted in the same rules.

"Marijuana on campus is prohibited by state law and by federal laws, including several that specifically apply to institutions of higher learning," Johnson said.

The university ban even holds in Colorado, where cannabis consumption is legal for anyone over the age of 21. At the University of Colorado Boulder, school officials don't allow medical marijuana on campus. Instead, they will help you find alternative housing in the surrounding area.

Students at Boulder caught with weed are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and the university doesn't always involve law enforcement, according to a spokesperson. The more laid-back approach isn't enough to protect patient rights, according to Kara Janowsky, a 23-year-old psychology major who just graduated from the school this May. She lived off campus and never risked bringing pot to class, even though she has a valid medical card.

"I just wish the school was a little more willing to stand up for students who are in need," she said.

For some students, the ban on medical marijuana is just an inconvenience. They can live in an apartment off campus and consume their cannabis before they go to class each day.

Levi Gourdie isn't so lucky. The 21-year-old history major was diagnosed with Crohn's disease a decade ago and has since struggled with the illness, which inflames the lining of the digestive tract and can lead to severe diarrhea, abdominal pain and nausea.

He studied at Butler University in Indiana until December 2014, when he stopped his classes as the symptoms became worse. "My Crohn's has just been out of control," he said.

Over the years, he has tried an array of prescription drugs to combat the disease, with mixed results. He uses steroids from time to time to control the inflammation. They can help, but they also have some uncomfortable side effects, like mood swings and swelling in his face.

He's also used a drug called Remicade, which he found effective but not sustainable.

"It can be risky to use long term," he said. "It ate up my skin and I was getting staph infections because my skin was so destroyed."

He stumbled upon marijuana as a possible treatment during his sophomore year. He was smoking pot for fun when he realized it brought him relief.

"That's when I started to find that it did help my Crohn's and it wasn't just about getting high," he said.

Related: A US government agency quietly acknowledged that marijuana may help fight brain tumors

Medical marijuana eased a wide range of problems associated with the disease, according to Gourdie: it kept nausea at bay, calmed his stomach cramps and quelled his anxiety about having to rush to a bathroom all the time. Pot didn't cure him, but it helped him cope with the illness.

He was in the wrong place for someone curious about medical weed, however. The drug isn't legal in Indiana, even for medical use. Luckily, Gourdie was able to travel back to his hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, to get a prescription.

Still, the campus presented its own challenges. Although his roommates were comfortable with him having medical marijuana in their shared university housing, he knew he would face a disciplinary hearing "at the minimum" if he was caught possessing an illegal substance.

"There's probably a good chance I could have gone to court for it in Indiana," he said.

Gourdie is transferring for his final year of his bachelor's degree to Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, a state where medical marijuana is legal. While he made the move primarily for personal reasons, he's also glad he'll have easier access to medical marijuana.

"If I need a refill on my medication, I don't need to drive four or five hours," he said.

Students Levi Gourdie, Kara Janowsky, and Andre Maestas have all publicly advocated for marijuana legal reform on their respective university and college campuses. But higher education institutions aren't likely to enact protections for users of medical marijuana until Congress changes the law or the schools receive explicit guidance from the US Department of Education.

While the US House of Representatives has passed a measure to keep the federal government from interfering with state-level medical marijuana programs, the bill still needs to clear the Senate. Even then, it's not clear if any universities would reconsider their policies.

Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the best option for the moment might be a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on campus.

"It would be nice to have a little bit more protection at the federal level, but I don't think you're going to see the colleges asking for it," she said.

Follow Ted Hesson on Twitter: @tedhesson

Watch the VICE News Documentary: "Peru's War on Drugs." 

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