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Campuses scramble to deal with medical marijuana

Across the street from the University of Colorado’s flagship campus in Boulder you’ll find Dr. Reefer, a small storefront bedecked in neon and an easily identifiable marijuana leaf.

Inside, the air is heavy with the pungent aroma of marijuana. “Bud tendress” Lauren Townsend, 21, explains to a visitor how some student customers buy cannabis-infused sodas or brownies so they can discreetly ingest the drug in the campus library while they study. She demonstrates how to hold the soda bottle so any reference to marijuana is obscured. Or, clients can buy the more typical form of marijuana to be smoked in the privacy of their own homes.

Within 500 feet there are three other medical marijuana dispensaries also targeting students, the maximum allowable in Boulder in that amount of space.

Other college towns in Colorado are experiencing a similar phenomenon, leaving campus officials scrambling to come up with policies on the budding use of medical marijuana by students – and, in some cases, staff. It’s no easy task considering ambiguities in the state’s ever-changing medical marijuana laws, threats of lawsuits by pro-pot advocates or cities attempting to set limits of their own. The Legislature is now considering a measure that would ban anyone under age 21 from entering a dispensary. There are about 100 dispensaries in Boulder and 1,000 statewide.

“We’re kind of ground zero for this right now,” said Meloni Rudolph, associate dean/student judicial officer at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. “In Colorado, with the dispensary thing, it’s such a J-curve right now.”

Mostly, campuses are clearly articulating that marijuana – medicinal or otherwise – is illegal under federal law and therefore illegal to possess or consume on any campus that receives federal dollars.

But that hasn’t stopped medical marijuana registry card-toting students from inquiring about using the drug in their dorm rooms or requesting that schools establish designated smoking rooms for them.

Marijuana citations spike at CU

CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard said between 10 and 15 percent of students contacted by campus police for having marijuana present medical marijuana cards. CU is among many campuses that will exempt students with registry cards from the requirement that freshmen live on campus. So far, three students have been released from their housing contracts because of their desire to use medical marijuana.

“We will nullify the housing contract with no penalty,” said Hilliard, who sits on the campus’ alcohol and drug working committee.

One CU employee even inquired about using marijuana on the job.

“We know it’s a growing phenomenon,” Hilliard said. “We have to be clearer about the policy at CU from acceptance through orientation and move-in.”

In 2009, when CU-Boulder police officers first started seeing medical marijuana cards, there were 312 citations issued for the petty offense of possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, up from 166 in 2008, said CU-Boulder police spokeswoman Molly Bosley. Through March of this year, police have reported 78 marijuana possession cases. Some of the increase could be due to the availability of medical marijuana – but Bosley also noted that the department hired more officers during that time.

The Colorado School of Mines in Golden has fielded two requests from students who wanted to use medical marijuana in residence halls, said Rebecca Flintoft, director of auxiliary services and housing. Flintoft was prepared to let them out of the on-campus housing requirement but both students chose to stay and forego their medical marijuana – at least while on campus, she said.

Some students eat their “medicine”

Metro State College is a commuter campus without residence halls, but medical marijuana has still become an issue.

Medical marijuana or not, pot in any form is technically banned on Metro’s campus, said Emilia Paul, associate vice president of student life.

“It’s still a violation whether it’s under a medical license or we catch them (smoking) in the alley,” Paul said. “Generally, we don’t tend to criminalize minor cases unless there are other activities involved when it comes to marijuana.”

Paul said a handful of students on the state registry have requested designated places to smoke pot at Metro’s health and counseling centers. They’ve also asked people at the campus health center to write them prescriptions – something campus personnel are prohibited from doing.

“Students say, ‘I’m here a lot. I can’t dose because I’m away from home,’” Paul said. “In checking with the police, the answer is “no.”

Instead, Paul said she’s hearing about students ingesting edible forms of the drug, which is difficult if not impossible for campus police to monitor.

“It’s certainly an emerging issue,” Paul said. “I have a feeling this is not going to go away.”

Expanding medical marijuana registry

By the end of this year, 2 percent of Colorado’s population will have medical marijuana cards if the pace of applications continues its current trend line, said Metro’s Rudolph. On Jan. 12, the state received 1,900 medical marijuana applications in one day. According to the state, the number of medical marijuana registry applications increased from about 270 per day in August 2009 to 1,000 per day in February 2010. The turnaround time for applications now is about six months.

“It appears they are continuing to issue a lot of these cards,” said Detective Jason Mollendor, of the Auraria Campus Police Department. “Students that have these cards want to use this drug on campus. But, to be honest, it’s no different than getting drunk. There is a change in physiology that will affect their ability to go to class and function. While they think they need the drug for pain control or nausea, they really are harming their own education by doing this.”

Not all students agree with that assessment, however.

Andrew Orr, the 20-year-old head of CU-Boulder’s NORML chapter, a group that advocates for the legalization of marijuana, believes students on the state registry – at the very least – should be allowed to use marijuana in residence halls.

“If a person needs to use medical marijuana to improve their life or maintain a regular lifestyle, it should be their right to consume in the dorms just as I was prescribed painkillers,” said the film and history major who is on the registry and uses medical marijuana to treat pain and muscle tension related to a spinal injury and subsequent surgery.

Students use medical marijuana to deal with anxiety, insomnia, sports injuries or other ailments often categorized under “severe pain,” one of the accepted conditions for which one can get a medical marijuana card in the state of Colorado, Orr and dispensary operators say.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous,” CU-Boulder applied math and finance major Rob Richmond, 20, said. “People do it just for the sake of having a card. They tend to make something up just to get a card. People are proud of it.”

Richmond chuckled when asked if his three buddies on the state registry have legitimate medical problems.

Friend and fellow CU student Brad Stachurski, 20, worries the proliferation of dispensaries and medical marijuana in Boulder will “hurt the value of our degrees.” When he tells out-of-state friends where he goes to school, they grill him about drug use.

At Fort Lewis College in Durango, authorities have yet to tweak campus policies to address medical marijuana. A recent student referendum calling for campus officials to treat marijuana offenses the same as those involving alcohol did not pass due to low voter turnout. But students are clearly concerned about the campus’s handling of all types of marijuana.

“It’s something I would imagine we’re going to address this summer,” spokesman Mitch Davis said. “There is confusion as to whether medical marijuana is allowed or not. It is not. You can’t smoke it in a public area and endanger people around you. That’s really what that boils down to. It falls back on the tobacco policy. You can’t smoke in dorms.”

Colorado State University officials are also discussing their handling of medical marijuana among students and staff, CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander said.

“Like most businesses and institutions of higher education, the university is in the process of developing protocols for these situations,” Bohlander said.

Currently, drug possession by students is handled in a few different ways. Students can be issued a traditional citation by the campus police or they may be issued an internal ticket, which routes them through the Office of Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct Services, Bohlander said. That office may opt to send the student through a CSU treatment program. Students are also referred to the DAY (Drugs Alcohol and You) Program for a self-assessment that provides individualized feedback, including specific recommendations and the option to attend DAY programs.

The Fort Collins City Council also passed a law banning dispensaries within 500 feet of CSU, he said.

As the state’s land grant university, CSU’s 54 extension agents have even got caught up in the medical marijuana fray.

“People were bringing in marijuana plants and seeking advice,” Bohlander said. “Extension agents weren’t sure what to do with that.”

“We asked the legal department for an opinion. The legal direction was that extension agents should not be giving advice. Marijuana remains illegal on a federal level.”

Medical marijuana stats

– Number of people in Colorado with medical marijuana cards – 21,625

– Percent of men on the state registry: 74 percent

– Average age of people on the registry: 40

– Percent of people on the state registry who live in the Denver metro area: 57 percent

– Percent of people on the registry who report using medical marijuana for severe pain: 91 percent

– Number of applications received daily by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: 1,000

– Application backlog: 40,000-43,000

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