Blowing Smoke

On campuses, marijuana legalization may change little

Tyler Markwart, an outspoken pro-marijuana student at WSU.
Tyler Markwart, an outspoken pro-marijuana student at WSU.

When a drug task force arrested an outspoken pro-marijuana student at Washington State University in 2011, it sent waves of fear through pot activists on campus.

Tyler Markwart, who had a prescription for the drug, says he was delivering marijuana to medical patients on campus and on the Palouse.

“I was producing and distributing high-quality medication at very low prices,” says Markwart, who founded the nonprofit Allele Seeds Research Group and lobbied WSU leaders to begin growing the plant on campus for research. “But I wasn’t just trying to set up a pot shop — I was trying to work gradually into it to see if I could get the support of the community behind me, so I started a delivery service.”

But for Markwart and other college students with medical marijuana prescriptions, the intersection of college policy, state law and a federal ban has sown confusion.

At state universities, officials are trying to answer a tricky question: How can the university comply with federal law without interfering with the rights of patients who have a prescription for medical marijuana?

Even if an initiative to legalize marijuana passes in November, the drug likely won’t be allowed on college campuses in Washington any time soon, according to university spokespeople across the state.

Initiative 502 would legalize the drug for medicinal and recreational uses, but a 1989 federal law would still ban marijuana on college campuses. Under the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1989, institutions that allow illegal drugs on campuses can be audited and lose federal funding.

“We can’t do anything that would threaten federal funding,” says Darin Watkins, WSU’s spokesman.

At the University of Washington, the passage of I-502 is not likely to change the university’s ban on marijuana, according to Norm Arkans, a university spokesman.

“We would comply with the law that governs where those dollars flow,” Arkans says.

At WSU, all smoking — including cigarettes and slow-burning incense — is banned in residence halls. The university also prohibits marijuana use and possession on campus, even for those with medical prescriptions, Watkins says.

But Edwin Hamada, director of Residence Life at WSU, says the ban on marijuana is sometimes difficult to enforce in the dorms, especially when it comes to edibles, such as brownies baked with marijuana butter. This poses a conundrum for resident advisers, the primary enforcers of the policy in dorms. Unlike campus police, the advisers are students’ peers.

“It’s a sticky situation,” he says. “They’re not going to turn their back on policy, but also not going out of their way [to look for marijuana use].”

Markwart says he made several medical marijuana deliveries to patients on campus. Some of these patients lived in dorms and in campus housing, he says. In fact, Markwart says he used marijuana in the 21-and-older dorms as well.

“I used my vaporizer every day in my dorm room, with no problems from the RA, as they knew I was a medical patient,” he says in a Facebook message to a reporter.

In August, a Whitman County Superior Court judge sentenced Tyler J. Markwart, 31, to 80 days in jail and a $10,000 fine for three counts of felony marijuana delivery. He plans to appeal the sentence.

Watkins says students are prohibited from using marijuana in dorms, but agreed that the ban can be difficult to enforce. However, the university tries to accommodate medical marijuana users: The university waives the first-year on-campus housing requirement for students with medical cards, Watkins says.

Mark Cooke, drug policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, says conflicting marijuana laws and policy have perplexed patients, as well as officials enforcing the various laws and policies.

“The current law doesn’t provide a lot of protection for patients,” Cooke says. “There’s a lot of confusion among the local government about how they should handle this issue. So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that there’s confusion at the college level as well.”

Student advocates say they don’t want to jeopardize federal funding for the university. However, Topsanna Littlestar, vice president of WSU’s branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, thinks the initiative — whether it passes or fails — might have relatively little impact on campus.

“There’s a lot of people who smoke on campus anyway,” she says. “They smoke in their dorms, they smoke on campus, they smoke joints walking to class. They do it anyway. So they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing right now, and they’re going to have a little bit less fear of getting busted for it.” 

This article was reported by the Murrow News Service, which distributes stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

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