When Robyn Smith gets a migraine or feels a sharp pain in his neck, he is not allowed to take his medication on campus.
University administration have told him there is no way around it, despite the inconveniences it creates. Because even though state law says medical marijuana is legal, which he uses on a daily basis, federal law still considers it a “dangerous drug” with no medical benefits.
This is a problem for Smith, a junior industrial tech major, because he deals with chronic pain every day — a result of his time serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, where he carried 150 pounds of gear most days with his slight, skinny frame weighing in at 140 pounds.
“It’s not like the smaller you are, the less weight you carry,” Smith said. “Usually it’s the smaller you are, you get to carry just as much, if not heavier.”
While Smith is free to use his vaporizer with marijuana at home, there is no viable way for him to do the same on campus, university administration told Smith. Maine universities cannot allow medical marijuana because of stipulations set by federal and state laws.
Smith said he doesn’t plan on returning to USM next semester because of its prohibitive drug policy.
There is no recourse for a patient of his kind who complies with state law, yet engages in criminal activity, according to federal law.
“That’s the issue that states have opened up,” said Sally Dobres, associate director of human resources and director of equity and diversity at the University of Maine System in Bangor, who helped clarify the university system’s stance on medical marijuana in a memo from early 2011. “It doesn’t change the fact that it’s illegal on a federal level.”
Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, though a distribution mechanism wasn’t legitimized until the passing of 2009’s Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act that created a state registry. Under current state law, patients, caregivers and dispensaries are allowed to grow a limited amount of marijuana, and patients can ingest it within their homes. State law allows treatment of diseases and conditions like cancer, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, along with symptoms like severe nausea, seizures and intractable pain.
Wendy Chapkis, professor of women and gender studies and sociology and expert in medical marijuana and drug policy, said multiple studies have found that marijuana is more effective in treating medical conditions than pharmaceutical drugs in some cases. Chapkis co-authored a book called “Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine“ in 2008.
“The scientific research is very compelling,” Chapkis said.
But the federal government puts the substance in legal limbo because of the Controlled Substances Act, passed as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970. The law sorts drugs into different categories, or schedules according to how dangerous they are considered and if they have any medical benefits. Cannabis is a Schedule I drug, considered unsafe with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
Smith said when his doctor first recommended medical marijuana in mid-2011, he originally used a caregiver who provided the marijuana buds. But after the caregiver became unreliable, Smith set up his own lab at home with six flowering plants, which is the maximum number allowed by Maine’s medical marijuana act.
Dobres said the University of Maine System clarified medical marijuana’s legal status at state universities after the act was passed and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009 that the United States Department of Justice wouldn’t use its limited resources to prosecute those in compliance with state law.
After receiving legal counsel from university attorneys, Dobres and USM Executive Director of Student Affairs Rosa Redonnett sent it at each state university in February 2011. The USM Office of Public Affairs provided The Free Press with a copy of the memo.
The memo cites the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act and the Drug-Free Workplace Act, which both say institutions failing to comply with federal drug law risk losing federal contracts and financial assistance. In addition, one rule from the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana program states that patients can’t smoke in public places. Furthermore, the memo says the Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect medical marijuana patients from prosecution because of federal law.
“It’s very challenging to find a way to get through the thicket,” Dobres said.
But even though university officials say there is no way around the law, some of them have tried to offer alternative solutions to students like Smith.
“I think great universities give friendly reminders that say ‘you can’t do it, but let’s talk about how we can make it work,'” Director of Community Standards Steve Nelson said. “I have told these students, you have to find an alternative place off-campus.”
Smith has tried this strategy multiple times by parking off-campus and using his vaporizer in the passenger seat of his car with the key out of ignition to avoid getting a DUI. But even then, he is still breaking state and federal law by using marijuana in a public place. And the situation gets worse during the winter because Smith can’t heat his car with the key out of ignition.
Chapkis has worked with Smith because of her expertise and told him to keep track of the inconveniences on campus. Chapkis said she hopes Smith can build a case for why the federal law doesn’t work for students like him.
Although he likely won’t be returning to USM, he plans to finish his work with Chapkis in the hopes that his case will improve conditions for other students.
“That’s why I wanted to fight it originally, not so much for me, but because more and more people are going to keep getting their cards,” Smith said. “I feel like there are a lot of people who are one way or another disabled at USM. It’s just gonna suck for someone in a wheelchair who can’t come on campus with their medical marijuana. They have to park off campus, and that’s just not going to work for them.”
Keith Stropp, founder and legal counsel for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, a non-profit lobbyist group in Washington D.C., said unfortunately students don’t have any choice but to smoke off-campus right now — unless the university secretly allowed students to smoke. But he said that’s a risk most, if not all, schools wouldn’t take.
“It’s not just a threat of federal action. It’s also a matter of private funding, too,” Stropp said in reference to the public stigma of marijuana and how it could affect the image of a university. He also said he doesn’t know of any public universities that have allowed it.
In response to what exact action the Department of Justice would take if a university allowed medical marijuana on campus, DOJ spokesperson Laura Sweeney said, “We generally don’t ever speculate on what we may or may not do until something happens and the issue is before us.”
Stropp said the most realistic course of action to push for change is political action, but he conceded that it’s a touchy subject for most politicians because of its public stigma.
Stropp said federal decriminalization will happen when more states legalize marijuana — and not just for medical purposes. He said his organization has switched their focus because he believes “it’s none of the government’s business on whether you smoke marijuana or not.”
Federal legalization would also significantly reduce enforcement resources used in the United State’s war on drugs, where as many as 850,000 people are arrested a year for possession or trafficking of marijuana.
Last summer, Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana on a federal level, so that its legality could be determined on a state-by-state basis. However, the Library of Congress website was referred to a house subcommittee on June 3 and it hasn’t moved yet.