Legal pot still banned on Bellingham’s college campuses

The first recreational marijuana stores in Bellingham opened with long lines and much fanfare this July, but college officials say legal marijuana hasn’t had much effect on local campuses.

As Western Washington University begins classes on Wednesday, Sept. 24, the city already has four recreational pot stores — more than Seattle — and another just opened in Maple Falls.

Despite its widespread availability — at retail stores, medical marijuana outlets and on the black market — marijuana remains banned at WWU, Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College.

The ban is not just for students. It applies to faculty, staff and campus visitors as well.

Officials at WWU have been grappling with student marijuana use for some time, Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge said, but he didn’t think there were any increases in drug violations tied to legalization.

“Students, by and large, seem to be pretty clear on the expectations we’ve set,” Sledge said.

When legalization went into effect, staff reminded students that marijuana was still banned on campus and in university housing. In addition to receiving copies of the school’s policies, new students are informed of the drug and alcohol rules at freshman orientation and at meetings in the residence halls at the beginning of the quarter.

“Just sending it isn’t enough,” Sledge said of campus policies. “We want to make sure we talk to them and that they’ve heard that from people.”

WWU freshman Evan Wiebe, 18, said he was excited to move in to the Fairhaven dorms Friday morning, Sept. 19.

Wiebe and his mom, Brenda Wiebe, said they hadn’t heard about school policies on weed, but that wasn’t an issue.

“I already know you’re not allowed to do it here because the school gets federal funding,” Evan said.

Sledge thought he’d get a lot more questions when marijuana was legalized, but so far the feedback he’s received is that the school’s policies make sense.

“Students understand it; students get it,” he said. “They might not know the exact policy, but they know they can’t smoke on campus. We’d like to think students read all the policies, but we know that isn’t always realistic. To know that, by and large, students understand what the policy is, that’s the best way to make sure new students learn effectively about the policy as well. They’re more prone to ask a peer.”

Sledge estimated that in a given year about a dozen to 20 students are evicted from student housing because of repeated drug violations, and he didn’t think that number had changed with marijuana legalization. For the most part, marijuana is still illegal for students living on campus because the majority of them are under 21.

BTC hasn’t seen an increase of marijuana issues since legalization,said Marni Saling Mayer, communications director. Students are aware it’s a drug-free campus and will remain that way, she said.

Whatcom Community College also hasn’t noticed more trouble on campus since the stores popped up, said Mary Vermillion, communications director. Marijuana use is listed among the alcohol, drug and tobacco violations within WCC’s policies, which address that state legalization doesn’t affect the ban on campus or during campus activities.

Still, legalization has raised a new concern for Sledge: the availability of edible marijuana products, which could be harder to detect and might lead to confusion or overconsumption if packaging is unclear. The kind of marijuana-based edibles available in local stores ranges from candies and cookies to pita chips and croutons. Students must be 21 to buy those products in stores.

“There is some concern, I think, from lots of folks around how alternate ways of ingesting marijuana might impact public areas or schools,” Sledge said.

For the most part, though, Sledge isn’t seeing any changes on campus so much as hearing them.

“It’s certainly more part of the culture, so we’re more apt to hear people talk about it now than they might have been comfortable talking about before legalization,” Sledge said.

It also might be a draw for some students. Natasha Higbee, who is originally from the East Coast but now lives in Seattle, thinks WWU and other colleges may see an influx of students who want to move to Washington for the legal weed.

“I think you’ll get a lot of potheads from out of state coming here,” said Higbee, 20, as she visited a friend at WWU on Friday. “I heard people back home saying they wanted to apply to places in Colorado or Washington because of it.”

So far, though, that hasn’t translated to an increase of problems on campus. WWU Chief of Police Darin Rasmussen said there hasn’t been much of a change since marijuana was legalized.

Most marijuana issues are dealt with through the student conduct code and are a matter of student discipline, rather than a criminal charge, he said.

“There is an effort to help students (figure out) life without creating a criminal record for them,” Rasmussen said.

The university’s drug and alcohol policies apply to visitors as well as students, so people should think twice before lighting up at a campus concert. Rasmussen said officers would enforce the laws if non-students who are younger than 21 are caught smoking or possessing pot on campus. For non-students over 21, it’s still an infraction to smoke pot in public, so they’d get a citation if caught. If visitors have pot on them, they’ll be told to take it off campus, maybe back to their car, and then they can return to campus empty-handed.

“It’s still a new law and it’s new for everyone,” Rasmussen said. “Going forward, it will become easier as the rules and regulations become clearer from the state. That’s the same thing here.”

Reporter Samantha Wohlfeil contributed to this story.