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Can My College Discipline Me for Marijuana if it’s Allowed Under State Law?

According to a survey conducted by the American College Health Association and reported in the spring of last year, over 58% of college students admit to smoking marijuana or using cannabis in another form. The U.S. government says that nearly 8% of college students report using marijuana on a daily basis.

However, over 20 states have legalized the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, and numerous other states have decriminalized the possession and use of the substance. Information publicized by the Pew Research Center reports that almost 50% of Americans live in a jurisdiction where it is legal to use marijuana not just for medical purposes but recreationally as well.

So, if you are going to college in a state or jurisdiction where marijuana use is allowed, it is natural to wonder whether your college still has the right to discipline you for using the substance. The short answer is yes, the school does have that right as a general principle, and we’ll explain why that can cause huge problems for you. However, the method of discipline and the school’s application of fact-finding procedures need to comply with the details in the school’s code of conduct. So, if you have been sanctioned, it may be possible to appeal. Moreover, if you have been accused but not yet found responsible for a violation, you may be able to mount a solid defense and clear your record, particularly if you work with an experienced student defense attorney who understands techniques effective in campus disciplinary proceedings.

The bottom line is that if you are being disciplined or sanctioned for use of marijuana as a violation of the school’s code of conduct, you can and should fight to protect your future.

Why College Disciplinary Proceedings are So Important

Students facing disciplinary action on campus often feel like they’re dealing with a minor inconvenience like a parking ticket. Nothing could be further from the truth. Penalties for a violation of a school’s rules regarding drugs can include:

  • Disciplinary probation
  • Fines
  • Formal reprimands
  • Loss of financial aid and/or housing
  • Mandatory evaluation and treatment
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion

Even a seemingly minor disciplinary action for a violation of the school’s code of conduct can remain on your record permanently, interfering with your ability to continue your education or obtain your choice of employment. Certain employers, including the federal government, often ask to review copies of college transcripts even for applicants who have been working professionally for decades.

Often, a notation on a student’s record will state that a violation occurred but not explain what the violation involved, leaving everyone free to guess what rule you might have broken. They might wonder if you were sanctioned for cheating or theft and, therefore, untrustworthy. They could wonder if your action involved violence, making you a potential loose cannon. At the very least, you come across as irresponsible for breaking rules to such a degree that campus officials took notice and made the effort to prosecute, and you look ineffective for failing to mount an adequate defense.

Your academic record matters. You need to take whatever steps you can to protect it.

Evidence Collected in a School Investigation Can Be Used in a Criminal Investigation

Many students—and their parents—do not realize that evidence collected during a school’s investigation of a code of conduct violation can be turned over to the police and used to further prosecution for a criminal offense. If possession of marijuana is legal in the jurisdiction, why does that matter? 

Even when the use of marijuana is not treated as a crime, possession of a certain amount of marijuana creates a presumption that the person caught with it had the intent to distribute the substance. Possession with intent to distribute is a very serious offense. Actual intent has no bearing on the crime. The laws are written in such a way that just possessing an amount over the limit puts you into the category of a dangerous drug dealer rather than a recreational drug user.

Statements made in the course of an investigation or hearing on campus can be used by law enforcement in a criminal prosecution. It is vitally important to get advice from a student defense attorney before making any statements. The same holds true for admissions in documents that you are asked to sign. Statements within the document can come back to haunt you, so it is wise to have an attorney review the terms before signing.

Marijuana is Still Illegal Under Federal Law

One critical point often overlooked in discussions regarding marijuana use is the fact that the drug is still rated as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. It is considered by the federal government to be a substance without a currently accepted medical use and a high potential to be abused. Other drugs on the Schedule I list include heroin, LSD, quaaludes, and ecstasy. Drugs such as cocaine and meth are ranked on the less serious Schedule II.

Federal penalties associated with the simple possession of marijuana can include mandatory minimum sentences. Cultivation of even a small quantity of marijuana plants is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Prosecution for simple possession may be rare at the federal level, but why take that risk? If someone believes you have a connection to sale or trafficking interests, you could be in serious trouble. Remember that federal law overrides state law. Even if you are not formally prosecuted for the offense, a marijuana violation on your record is not going to look good if you want to receive a federal loan.

School Policies Do Not Necessarily Align with Legal Offenses

Students and their parents need to realize that colleges and universities have the ability to discipline students for violations of the school’s code of conduct regardless of whether the violation disobeys any criminal or civil law. When a student enrolls in the school, they sign a statement or take other legal steps that indicate that they agree to abide by the school’s code of conduct.

That code of conduct, often contained in the student handbook, effectively becomes another set of laws that the student is obliged to abide by. The school has the ability to create any set of rules they choose. If it is legal for you to drink, smoke, and use marijuana off campus, your college or university can still prohibit these actions on campus. Moreover, they have the ability to penalize you for a violation of the rules because you agreed to the rules. You have a contractual obligation to follow campus rules, and a violation potentially subjects you to penalties. 

In addition, the school code of conduct also controls the process the school can use to investigate and determine whether you should be held liable for a violation. You are not guaranteed the same due process rights that you would if you faced charges in criminal court. Your ability to introduce evidence to defend yourself may be limited.

However, attorneys who are experienced in defending students during campus proceedings know that there are always some options available and certain arguments that are more effective than others. They also know that school findings can be overturned if the school did not follow its own procedures properly or if those procedures violated the student’s contractual rights or the institution’s contractual obligations.

Defense Against Allegations of a School Code Violation

Students usually receive a written notice informing them that they are being investigated for a potential violation of the school code. One of the first steps toward defense is to examine school policies carefully, determine what notice the institution was supposed to provide, and ascertain whether they provided proper notice.

The school conducts fact-finding operations, often interviewing witnesses to determine whether the accused student’s behavior violated school policies. The institution may hold a hearing and give the student the chance to present evidence in defense, or responses may be handled in writing or closed interviews. Again, it is important to determine whether the school followed its own policies during the investigation and whether the student received the appropriate opportunities to present an explanation or defense.

If a college or university follows correct procedures and still finds a student responsible for a violation, an attorney can often assist when a less burdensome penalty is appropriate under the circumstances. For instance, if the school orders a formal reprimand, an attorney might suggest that the student would learn better lessons for the future by performing community service instead, with no permanent mark on the record. For a serious offense where a school is determined to expel a student, an attorney might negotiate the opportunity for the student to withdraw voluntarily instead so that there is no expulsion on record.

Duffy Law Understands the Nuances of Student Defense

For a variety of reasons, defending a student against allegations of a violation of the school code is far different from defending an individual in criminal court. To protect future opportunities, a student accused of any violation should consult an attorney experienced in on-campus student defense.

At Duffy Law, our team is focused on protecting students’ rights in a variety of situations. We know the strategies that succeed in campus proceedings and when findings can be challenged in court. If you or a family member are facing allegations of a code violation for marijuana use or any other issue, we invite you to contact us for a confidential consultation. We know what’s at stake and we will fight to protect it.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.