UCO Updates Medical Marijuana Policy

Medical marijuana on campus was prohibited in an update to the University of Central Oklahoma Code of Conduct from a decision by the UCO presidential cabinet. The update said that even though State Question 788 passed, UCO receives federal funding and therefore still has to follow federal law.

State Question 788 was passed on June 26, making Oklahoma the 30th state to legalize medical marijuana. Oklahomans, with recommendation from a doctor, can now apply for a Medical Marijuana Patient License to be able to grow, use and possess medical marijuana.

However, federal law prohibits the use, possession, cultivation, manufacturing, being in the presence of or distribution of any federally controlled substance. Marijuana is currently considered a federally controlled substance, meaning UCO has included what is federally prohibited in Section III. H. 14 of the UCO Code of Conduct.

“UCO obviously adheres to federal law, but the very practical side of that is that we receive tens of millions of dollars every year from the federal government,” said UCO President Don Betz. “…federal dollars are important to the university and also the basic fact of U.S. government is that federal law takes precedence over state statute or state court rulings…”

Betz said some of the federal funding UCO receives is through students who receive federal funding from pell grants and Stafford loans, but the university also receives $15 million a year in federal grants for research. Federal funds also fund student support on campus such as advising, mentoring, etc.

The medical marijuana policies and information section of student conduct, under ‘Keep It Off Campus’ states that if someone is caught in violation, they could be arrested, evicted from university housing and/or suspended from the university.

“I would say we have been talking about this issue for months as its developed across the state in a rather surprising way, but ultimately having been a political scientist my whole life, I know about the precedents of federal law and our lawyers had advised us in the same direction,” Betz said.

This was not a decision that the presidential cabinet made alone, the Regional University Systems of Oklahoma and the UCO legal team were consulted.

RUSO is UCO’s governing board, and Betz said RUSO has a strong decision on this matter that they have to adhere to. He said UCO, as well as the other five RUSO institutions, had to bring their policies in conformity with that decision.

Myron Pope, vice president of Student Affairs, said the decision was also made with a group from the Center Counseling and WellBeing, the legal office, Student Conduct, representatives from the Student Affairs Vice President office, University Communications and Housing and Dining.

“Our team had done some best practices analyses from other states – Oregon, Arizona, and other states that have legalized medical marijuana – and we looked at their student code of conducts as that process evolved in terms of implementation and in terms of what our code of conduct should say,” Pope said. “Basically, from that analysis, we discussed that and also based upon input from our RUSO regents, they provided us with a great deal of guidance also in stating that it is in our best interest, based upon the receipt of federal dollars, that we stick with the federal laws in terms of the plan of implementing or not allowing medical marijuana on campus.”

Betz said due to an understanding of the law, the Presidential Cabinet was not split in the decision to prohibit medical marijuana from campus.

Allie Shinn, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union, said making the decision to follow federal law because the university receives federal funds was not the best option for UCO.

“This is a mistake on UCO’s part. Medical marijuana is medicine and there is no other medicine that I am aware of that is banned on college campuses,” Shinn said. “Students should have a right to make personal decisions with their doctors about what should and should not be treated and how it should and should not be treated.”

Shinn said if UCO, or any university, is concerned with following federal law to continue to receive their federal funding, then they should be lobbying with federal government to modernize their own drug laws to come into greater harmony with Oklahoma’s new laws.

“What UCO and other college campuses are doing now is, rather than having their students backs [and] standing up for what was overwhelmingly passed here in the state of Oklahoma, they’re caving to pressure from the federal government, if any such pressure exists,” Shinn said. “What instead they could and should be doing is working to ensure that the federal government falls more in line with what Oklahoma has adopted.”

Shinn said this is a new and always developing area of law, so any kind of recourse would depend on individual circumstances.

“As [the law] is getting sorted out, we would encourage students to think about the type of policies that they want to have at their university and work to ensure that their university is representing their interests through organizing, through lobbying, through getting involved in student government,” Shinn said. “There are definitely opportunities on every college campus to make your voice heard and we would really encourage the students of UCO who are concerned about this new policy to do exactly that.”

John Wood, associate professor for the UCO Political Science Department, said UCO has to protect itself, not only because of federal funds, but because of the state legislature and the perception. He said UCO’s board did what it had to do at this point.

“It’s not surprising because you have an insurance risk if something negative happens,” Wood said. “We have to follow federal guidelines and until the federal government deschedules marijuana, I think the whole medical marijuana industry itself or even the recreational industry in other states is going to have issues across the board.”

Along with Betz, the Presidential Cabinet includes the Provost and the vice presidents for the divisions of Development, Enrollment Management, Finance, Information Technology, Operations, Public Affairs, Student Affairs and University Communications.

“I think from my professional prospective, we felt that we need to make sure that we abide by the federal law, and what we want to do is make sure that we alert students through the code of conduct, as well as through various other modes of communication, about what the policy was going to be,” Pope said.

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