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Politics

High Stakes: College Students Could Tip Vote, But Pot Would Likely Still Be Banned on Campuses

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Chuck Grimmett
/
Flickr/Creative Commons

Over the past week, we’ve been reporting on Question 1, the ballot initiative that would establish a framework to distribute, tax and regulate marijuana sales across Maine. Today, in our final installment of “High Stakes,” we head to college, where students could play a critical role in determine whether the new initiative will pass.

Marijuana use on college campuses is at its highest level since 1980. And even though students tend to support marijuana legalization, they likely won’t see much of a difference on campus if Question 1 is approved.

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On the campus of Bates College in Lewiston, pretty much every student feels the same way about Question 1.

Most students didn’t want their names used for this story. But one, junior Alexandra Gwillim, views marijuana as a safer drug than alcohol. She says drinking at bars or parties can lead to rowdiness, overconsumption and risk-taking behavior by students. But with marijuana, she says, it’s a different situation.

“It’s pretty low-key,” Gwillim says. “In my opinion, it’s a lot more casual than drinking. It’s something you do in a small group of people. There’s really no pressure. Whereas if you go out drinking, it’s super loud and sticky and hot and messy. So I feel like marijuana is just the more — to use the term — chill. A lot more relaxed.”

It’s frustrating, Gwillim says, that marijuana is treated so much differently than alcohol, both by law enforcement and by campus officials. She says campus police may tell a student to just pour out their beer or wine. But for marijuana, they’ll give you a strike or a fine. Get three, and you’re suspended.

“It’s like, let’s not criminalize this group of people because they like to use something that makes them feel good,” she says. “That is not actually that dangerous, you know?”

But while Gwillim and other students may want more relaxed school policies when it comes to marijuana, the reality is that’s nearly impossible. The reason is federal money.

Virtually every public college receives tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for things like financial aid and research. But that money comes with some strings attached: Universities need to follow the federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, which bans marijuana use.

“We have nearly $900 million annually in research funding,” says Ken McConnellogue, a spokesman for the University of Colorado, which wrestled with these same issues after his state legalized marijuana sales in 2014. “So certainly that’s a focus for us, is maintaining our eligibility to get those federal research funds.”

McConnellogue says the school opted for a two-pronged approach, beginning with education. He says it’s understandable that students would mistakenly think marijuana was legal on campus. So as soon as new students get to campus — particularly out-of-state students — the school sits them down and talks about drug use.

McConnellogue says if the messaging doesn’t work and students still decide to use marijuana, then the school gets tough.

“We feel like it’s important for us to err on the side of being strict about this,” he says. “It’s easy for people to say ‘I didn’t know’ or ‘I thought it was legal.’ But we feel like given the messaging opportunities that are out there and the kinds of things we do with students, ignorance isn’t much of an excuse.”

There are only a few years of data, but the new approach seems to have led to fewer drug problems at the university. In 2012, the school reported nearly 400 drug arrests and more than 1,000 referrals. After legalization in 2014, those numbers fell by more than half.

Robert Dana, the vice president of student services at the University of Maine, says he sees his school trying the same thing.

“We would be spending even more time — spending prevention time — so they understand that this psychoactive substance, like any used heavily or immoderately or frequently, can have substantial negative effects,” he says.

Dana says the federal laws do play a role in keeping marijuana banned on Maine’s campus. But for him, the bigger factor is the drug’s effect on academics.

“In my history, not just as a dean but as somebody who studied drug use, marijuana became sort of conceptualized as a benign substance,” he says. “But we know it’s a psychoactive substance. And that used immoderately, it can hurt you. So for college campuses here and across the country, it’s one of those things that you don’t want to have corroding the academic enterprise.

“We’ve always spent time preventing its use. And taking a reasonably hard stand, saying, ‘You can’t do it here. It’s against the rules. It’s against the law.’ And students are called to account when they violate those rules and laws.”

However, the bigger question is: will these students come out to vote? University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried expects the answer to be yes.

Fried says college students tend to head to the polls for presidential elections, and that should mean a boost for the legalization campaign. Fried compares this year’s marijuana initiative to Maine’s 2012 referendum on same-sex marriage, which passed by a six-percent margin.

“Where that was another issue where there were really big differences by age group, in terms of support,” she says. “The younger one was the more supportive of marriage equality, generally the more support for LGBT rights. And similarly, more support for marijuana legalization.”

David Boyer, the political director for Legalize Maine, understands the importance of the college vote. Because of that, he says his group is planning to have coordinators on every major campus in the state, from Bates to USM, including a full-time staff member on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono.

He says Legalize Maine will also have extensive get-out-the-vote efforts for students, including volunteers driving people to the polls on Election Day.

“So we have a pretty robust plan to make sure the majority of young people get out and vote this time,” Boyer says.

If enough of those young people make it out, they could be one of the deciding factors on Election Day.

To read the rest of the series "High Stakes: How Legalizing Pot Could Affect Maine," click here.