Marijuana and college students: Smoking it, selling it, not supporting it

College students are notorious for adopting social issues and giving them saliency on the national stage, getting involved in politics and in lots of cases, forcing progressive changes – so why aren’t students grabbing ahold of marijuana reform?

Raised in the “just say no” and “above the influence” era, millennials grew up with a negative image of all drugs, including marijuana. Students worry outward support of legalization could jeopardize employment, and support for the drug is not widely accepted. This is changing with decriminalization and legalization across the country, but there’s no guarantee of sudden student support – the drug is still illegal.

The Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) works to get students involved in ending the War on Drugs, supporting decriminalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana. The organization has 5,000 student members in the U.S. and internationally, with two local chapters at University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. Temple did have a chapter until 2014, when its leader graduated and support dwindled. Jake Agliata, SSDP’s outreach coordinator for Pennsylvania, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has taken an interest in the area.

“We have a very strong chapter at UPenn and a smaller one at Drexel, but outside of that not much going on in the city,” Agliata said in an email. “There is definitely a need for more student activism in the Philadelphia movement and one of my jobs is to try and create excitement among students and young people.”

SSDP is dedicated to multiple drug issues, ranging from alcohol abuse and marijuana reform to counseling and education for users. They support marijuana reform, but do not focus on it and are not doing enough about it, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). PhillyNORML is Philadelphia’s chapter of the organization. Executive Director Bob Rudy said SSDP’s involvement in marijuana laws is limited, and it is one of the only student-led organizations doing any significant work.

“More adults are coming out than ever before, but students are dragging their heels,” Rudy said. “SSDP is not moving mountains over there at all.”

Another reason for a lack of support, Rudy said, is that young people feel they are excluded from the voting process and therefore have traditionally low voter registration. He also said college students are protected from the consequences of growing and dealing marijuana.

“University police do not want to bust people for weed,” Rudy said. “It costs the school too much money if they lose the student’s enrollment … But as soon as the kids get out of the university and they start dealing on the streets, they get their first time in jail and they understand the difference.”

Universities also have different preliminary punishments for possession and smoking marijuana. Temple’s Student Code of Conduct assesses its own violations for up to three repeat offenses, including punishments from a $250 fine for the first violation, which is steeper than the City’s citation, to expulsion from the university.

However these policies only apply on campus or within 500 feet of it, so any residents outside that area are face charges from the local, state or federal police. Temple, which only has six residence halls for undergraduates, is a majority commuter school. Not many students spend their leisure time on campus.

Compared to other universities with similar undergraduate enrollment, Temple has very few on-campus housing options. College students who live on campuses around the country may be protected by codes of conduct and university police rather than immediately facing legal charges, but many Temple students are not affected by university policies at their residency.

College students and drug use go hand-in-hand, as the drinking and party scene continues to be the social epicenter of higher education institutions. 52 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds had used marijuana in 2014, according to a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Use among this age group jumped 20 percent from 2013.

President Neil D. Theobald recently sent a message to students with heightened penalties for around-campus alcohol use and parties that supply alcohol, but the policy changes do not mention drug use. The Temple Police gave significantly more referrals and made more arrests for alcohol violations than for drugs in 2014, according to an annual report. On Main Campus that year, 559 referrals were given for alcohol, versus 102 for drug abuse, which does not exclusively mean marijuana. When looking at arrests, alcohol led drugs 23 to 7.

Concern for marijuana possession and use is decreasing nation-wide, as states and localities continue to soften laws against pot smokers. Philadelphia decriminalized possession of 30 grams or less in 2014, meaning offenders get a $25 citation versus previous punishment of jail time. The citation for smoking marijuana in public is $100. Since the change, marijuana arrests in the city have decreased by about 80 percent according to police department reports.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Pennsylvania Sunday, administering limited licenses for physicians, growers and dispensaries. While the law is a positive step for prescribed patients, the bill keeps medical marijuana in the hands of healthcare distributors. Full legalization of marijuana for recreational use is an even harder bill to pass in Pennsylvania’s mixed-party legislature.

PhillyNORML argues that the medical marijuana bill is not sufficient. Small businesses are unable to emerge because licenses are too expensive. The bill prohibits the sale of marijuana plants, which means patients cannot grow their own medicine at a cheaper cost. As a result, the black market still dominates consumer interest and patients are more likely to turn to illegal sale to obtain their medication.

College campuses, the hotspot for illegal sales, continue to thrive without need for legalization. Students can easily access marijuana already without a huge risk of penalty, so they are not motivated to actively support legalization.

“What students don’t realize is that they could actually have a hand in it,” Rudy said. “They don’t realize it, they don’t care, there’s no incentive; what’s the incentive for a student to get involved?”