BELLINGHAM - As Western Washington University students move in for the first full school year after state voters legalized recreational marijuana use, campus officials say their pot policies will stay put.
With state and federal laws in conflict - and millions in federal money possibly at stake - that means no marijuana is allowed on campus.
Voters passed Initiative 502 in November 2012, making it legal for those 21 and older to own a small amount of marijuana for personal use. Because the law is at odds with federal standards, WWU policies regarding the drug will remain unchanged.
"When state and federal laws are in conflict, federal law takes precedence," the university announced to students, faculty and staff after the initiative passed last fall.
Though the Department of Justice announced in late August it would not sue to block various states' laws legalizing the drug for medicinal or recreational use, the implications that decision may have for federal financial aid and grant money received by universities remains unclear.
As a result, Western and other public colleges and universities are erring on the side of caution while the federal government grapples with policy decisions.
"With millions of dollars in federal funding at potential jeopardy, public universities such as Western are not willing to place that money important to research and financial aid at risk," said Paul Cocke, Western's director of university communications.
All schools receiving federal financial aid and institutional grants must adhere to the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which requires institutions to establish drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs for students and employees, or risk losing funding.
Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College, and the state's other public universities and colleges also will not change their policies for this reason.
MARIJUANA ON CAMPUS
State law does not allow those under 21 to possess any amount of weed. A little more than half of Western's nearly 15,000 students are minors, and that percentage is around 90 percent in on-campus housing, where the majority of residents are freshmen who are typically 18 or 19, Cocke said.
Resident directors and assistants police the dorms for alcohol and drug violations as part of their normal duties. If found violating school code, students are often referred to drug counseling and placed on probation before more serious sanctions, such as suspension or expulsion, are considered.
"The student conduct code on drugs is not focused on harsh disciplinary measures as much as trying to get the student help," Cocke said. "While a possible sanction, expulsion for repeated drug use is rare."
Residence hall staff only refer marijuana violations to University Police in cases where a resident is selling or growing the drug, said John Purdie, associate director of university residences.
For less serious offenses, such as possessing a small amount or smoking it, the university guides students through disciplinary procedures with professional staff, Purdie said.
One thing the university is clear about, Purdie said, is that local, state, and federal laws are not at odds with university procedures.
"For example, it's not illegal to have a candle, but it's against our policy," he said.
The number of drug policy violations on campus each year is relatively small. Of the 4,000 students living on campus last year, 145 violated various parts of the drug policy, which covers marijuana and illegal drugs, he said. Campus residences see roughly twice that number of alcohol violations each year.
"That includes things like being in the room while someone else is violating the policy, and getting caught with paraphernalia," Purdie said. "When I look at it, it's something we take seriously, but it's not like that's the top priority. We are focused more on overall work and helping students be successful."
For a first violation, most students are placed on probation and referred to the school's Alcohol and Drug Consultation and Assessment Services. A second violation can result in eviction from university housing. Last year, seven of the 145 students had a second violation. That's a repeat rate of less than 5 percent, which Purdie said is typical.
To keep students informed, Western has taken several steps, including placing posters across campus that clearly state the university's policy on marijuana, Cocke said.
In addition to receiving information at summer orientation, new students moving to campus are emailed a link to the residential policies and procedures, with the reminder: "Policy violations are often the result of not knowing the policy."
Western freshman Linnaea Groh said she didn't receive any information from the school before she came to campus, Friday, Sept. 20.
"I didn't receive anything and it wasn't really addressed during orientation," she said.
Her mom, Erin Groh, a strong opponent of the drug for recreational use, said she called the school several times before moving her daughter to campus to ask about enforcement.
"The housing office was very open with addressing my concerns. I didn't want her to be in a party dorm," Groh said. "They said there are plenty of RAs in each area to monitor things, and it will always be everywhere a little bit, so you just have to make the right choices."
Western freshmen Shady Scipper and Johanna Kramer said they remember hearing about Western's marijuana rules at summer orientation.
"In orientation they told us, 'Even if you have a (medical marijuana) card, you can't smoke on campus, because it's a federal law and federal law takes precedent,'" Scipper said.
But as far as paperwork or email related to the matter goes, Kramer wasn't sure they received anything.
"Did you read all that stuff?" she asked Scipper. "I didn't."
However, freshmen know smoking on campus is not allowed, Kramer said.
"Mostly I think Western has a reputation for it, but I don't think they do it as much as people think," Scipper said.
This fall, campus Prevention and Wellness Services will launch a new social norms campaign, addressing misperceptions that influence student drug and alcohol decision-making. The campaign will inform students about Western students' reported alcohol and marijuana use, how to stay safe when consuming alcohol or attending parties, and what changes in state marijuana law mean for enforcement at Western.
FINANCIAL AID - A GRAY AREA
One area that remains unclear is how marijuana usage may affect federal financial aid eligibility.
Those applying for federal aid must answer questions about their criminal history, including past drug convictions. Only federal or state convictions, not local or municipal drug convictions, can disqualify a student for federal student aid funds, according to the current Federal Student Aid Handbook.
It is uncertain how the federal student aid application process might change now that students in Washington and Colorado, which also recently legalized recreational marijuana, will not face criminal convictions for simple possession, something that would disqualify their counterparts in other states.
A representative from the U.S. Department of Education contacted Friday, Sept. 20, was not able to immediately find out how the new state laws will affect the drug-conviction question on the FAFSA.
If convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs while enrolled in school and receiving federal aid, students must wait one or two years for first or second offenses before becoming eligible for aid again. Those with multiple offenses may be denied aid indefinitely.
Individual financial aid offices are in charge of determining eligibility and are not required to confirm a student's self-reported conviction history unless they receive conflicting information. Penalties for providing false information on the FAFSA can include fines of up to $20,000 and up to five years in prison.
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.