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Area colleges currently ban medical cannabis on campus, but how long can those policies remain realistic?

Medical marijuana use has been legal in Illinois for over half a decade, but colleges and universities in the state have yet to adopt equal on-campus regulations.

The medical marijuana pilot program was signed into law in August 2013 by then Gov. Patrick Quinn. August 2019 changes to the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Program removed the pilot distinction, making it a permanent program.

In August, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton told Capitol News Illinois that the legislation expanded equity across the state.

“By making the medical cannabis program permanent, expanding access to veterans and expanding the list of medical conditions, we are ensuring that families all across our state have access to the health care that they deserve,” she said.

But marijuana use at area colleges — even in a medical capacity — can result in harsh punishment thanks to student code of conduct rules that haven’t assimilated with new state legislation.

Knox College explicitly bans the use or possession of medical cannabis on campus, as does the code of conduct at Bradley University, Illinois Central College and the University of Illinois-Springfield.

The University of Illinois-Springfield drug and alcohol policy hasn’t been updated since the fall of 2012, before the medical cannabis program was instituted by the state.

According to Director of Public Relations Derek Schnapp, the university is nearing completion of an update to the language in the policy, which will be announced in “the coming weeks.”

University policies and punishment aren’t specific in the current iteration of the document, simply reading that “the University is committed to maintaining a drug- and alcohol-free environment for its students and employees, in compliance with applicable federal and state laws.” In 2012, cannabis at both the state and federal level hadn’t been decriminalized or legalized, but in 2019 it’s legal in the state for a UIS student to use medical cannabis to treat a variety of conditions.

But with cannabis still illegal on the federal level, universities must operate within a gray area.

At least part of the collective hesitancy relates to federal funding universities receive, and a fear that they could be cut if campus regulations allow for cannabis use. But playing it safe also means that college students don’t have access to state policies that make life easier for medical patients, particularly if those medical patients seek on-campus housing.

Ashley’s Law is an amendment to the Illinois school code that allows a parent, guardian or designated caregiver of a K-12 student to administer a medical cannabis infused product on school property. Ryan Bair, Bradley University Executive Director of Residential Living and Student Conduct, told GateHouse Media Illinois that the university’s physicians are not providing that same service to Bradley students, and that medical cannabis cannot be used in residence halls.

The university is proceeding cautiously, according to Bair, because of concerns surrounding the federal drug-free communities act. But, at least in his office, there is a willingness to adapt for the future, and help as much as he can in the present.

“There could be some changes where we do something on a case-by-case basis,” said Bair. “We’ll definitely take feedback and consider things moving forward, but I think it’s a world that’s just too unknown right now.”

At Illinois Central College, the “carrying, using, burning, inhaling, or exhaling” of cannabis, including medical cannabis, violates the ICC Board of Trustees Smoke-Free Policy, but that could be changing soon.

Kayla Thompson, ICC’s communications and media relations lead coordinator, said college officials are currently discussing the campus policy on cannabis in preparation for the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act taking effect on Jan. 1. Thompson said the college would not comment on the specifics of those discussions.

A ban on cannabis doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on student choices.

A recent University of Michigan study found that in 2018 marijuana use among college students was the highest in 35 years. Additionally, vaping of marijuana doubled from 2017.

The study found that 43 percent of full-time college students between the ages of 19 and 22 used marijuana at least once in the past year and 25 percent at least once in the past 30 days, the highest since the figures were at 45 and 25 percent, respectively, in 1983.

With the data and campus environment understood, Bradley, like ICC, has updated its policy to lighten punishment for cannabis, making it more similar to punishments students face for alcohol violations than drugs like cocaine.

Bair believes campuses across the country — including Bradley — could become more cannabis friendly in the future, especially as more data comes out about its effects, and if federal law begins on a path toward decriminalization.

In the meantime, colleges and universities across the state will continue to determine their course for the future, to varying degrees.

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