Marijuana may be legal in the state of Washington, but Pacific Lutheran University students still can’t legally light up. Possession and personal use, legal under state law for people more than 21 years of age, are still prohibited under PLU policy.
“Possession or use of marijuana is a violation of federal law, and therefore, it is a violation of university policy,” Greg Premo, director of Campus Safety, said.
The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act requires all schools and universities to properly enforce and report drug offenses, Ray Lader, director for Student Rights and Responsibilities, said. This includes marijuana-related offenses, regardless of what state law says.
“It’s the way the government does it when they have unfunded mandates with a lot of things,” Lader said. “Instead of saying ‘Oh, we’ll give you money to do it,’ they say ‘Well, we already gave you this money. If you want to keep getting this money, you have to do what we want.’”
Unlike some other schools, however, PLU’s policy extends to students even when they leave PLU property.
According to the Student Code of Conduct, PLU’s jurisdiction extends to all students enrolled in courses at PLU, including incidents that happen on holidays or during breaks between terms.
While it is considered a policy violation for students to use marijuana off campus while they are enrolled at PLU, this is difficult to enforce.
Most drug-related offenses that come to Student Rights and Responsibilities are reported by Residential Life or Campus Safety. Both organizations’ jurisdictions stop outside of PLU property.
“Most cases, if we don’t know, we don’t know,” Lader said.
Students are not immune to the policy just because they keep their usage off-campus, however. Even by state law, it’s illegal for minors less than 21 to possess and use marijuana, and Pierce County has enacted an ordinance to ban marijuana use in unincorporated areas, The News Tribune reported last December.
Although PLU is located within the boundaries of Parkland, some students living off-campus may be affected by the ban.
If Campus Safety gets a call regarding an odor or alleged possession, they send out Campus Safety officers to investigate, Premo said.
If they can pinpoint the source of the smell, they perform a student-led search of the room, meaning the officer asks the student to open various drawers and cupboards but does not conduct the search themselves.
They then confiscate any marijuana and paraphernalia they find and refer the student to Student Rights and Responsibilities.
Marijuana and dirty paraphernalia are destroyed. Clean paraphernalia may be reclaimed at a later date, Premo said.
Even if students aren’t found to be in possession of marijuana on campus, they may still be cited. If a smell is strong enough that a Resident Assistant or resident feels the need to report it to Campus Safety, it counts as a disruption of the community and can result in educational sanctions.
“Any time people are causing a disruption to the community, and causing people to complain, it is a problem,” Premo said.
One sophomore male, Adam*, who has been using marijuana for about a year, said he disagrees with this policy.
“I don’t think it should be something that automatically gets you a referral to Campus Safety or Student Conduct or anything,” Adam said. “People just need to be more open about it and talk about it more. Just like, ‘Hey, you know, you’re stinking up the hall, is there any way that we can work together to make this work for both of us?’”
It’s more difficult for students to be cited for a marijuana violation when students are discreet about their activity — when they do not have a strong odor, are not creating noise complaints and give RA or Campus Safety no cause to investigate.
“If a student has not created any issues and they’re not disrupting the community in any way, it’s probably not going to come to anyone’s attention,” Lader said.
Adam said he never keeps marijuana or paraphernalia in his room. Instead he keeps it in a vehicle not registered to PLU, which he always parks on county roads, and he only uses it off campus.
“Keep the smell down, because that’s really what gets people,” Adam said.
Premo said there has been an increase in odor-related complaints regarding marijuana since the drug was legalized in Washington state a year ago, but no more violations regarding possession than in previous years.
Campus Safety responded to 11 narcotics complaints Sept. 1-Dec. 5. Last academic year, during the same period, they had only seven complaints.
“I think students are utilizing it off campus, and when they come back, that odor’s just so strong that it’s causing complaints,” Premo said. “There needs to be some additional education to the students that it’s still a violation of our policy and of federal law to go off-campus and utilize [marijuana].”
Adam said legalization was not a factor in his decision to start using it.
“Most people think it’s OK, or they don’t think it’s OK. Whether or not it’s legal is not going to change their mind about that,” Adam said. “I don’t think I’ve met anybody who’s directly said they want to try it now because it’s legal.”
Since marijuana possession is a misdemeanor, not a felony, under federal law, Campus Safety does not report marijuana-related violations to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Premo said. They do report other narcotics, however.
Unlike the federal law, however, PLU’s policy does not make a distinction between marijuana and other types of drugs, excluding alcohol.
For Lader, the severity of sanctions has to do more with the amount of the drug a student was in possession of and whether or not he or she was planning on dealing.
“If someone is dealing, that’s going to be dealt with a lot more severely than someone with a minor possession,” Lader said.
For students’ first drug-related offense at PLU, sanctions will be mostly educational. They may be required to pay a fee and attend an education session, perform community service and write a “letter of mutual understanding” to demonstrate their understanding of the policy, Lader said.
Depending on the students’ histories and the severity of the violations, parental notification may be required.
The second time students are found responsible for breaking PLU’s drug policy, they are required to complete a substance use assessment and be placed on disciplinary probation. By the third offense, suspension is recommended.
Although the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) has provisions allowing for parental notification in the case of student disciplinary action, in general, a student’s disciplinary record with a university is considered an academic record and cannot be released without the student’s written consent.
This means that university-related disciplinary proceedings result in very few consequences for students outside of PLU.
Despite the ambiguity of the laws and regulations surrounding marijuana, Premo had clear advice to students who are considering using it: “Think twice about doing it. If you’re making that choice to do it, think about your actions coming back to campus and how you can minimize impacting the community around you.”
Jesse Major contributed to this article.
*Student’s name has been changed.