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Medical marijuana cures headaches for patients, causes them for colleges

by Sean Kennedy
Oct 23, 2013

Many people with chronic pain are overjoyed that medical marijuana will soon become legal in Illinois. But many college administrators are worried that allowing prescription cannabis on campus could jeopardize federal aid.

University officials across the state are putting together new policies to deal with medical marijuana on campus, which Illinois will allow as of Jan. 1, but federal law still prohibits. In the Department of Justice’s eyes, a prescription does not stop a medical marijuana user from violating the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act. Colleges are concerned that violating this law would make them ineligible for federal research funding and student aid, which amounts to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Most colleges have decided to side with federal regulations and continue to prohibit the drug, even with a prescription.

“The very short answer is, the passing of this law will have functionally no effect on school policies,” says Tim Love, director of the Office of Student Conduct at Loyola University Chicago. “There is lots of regulation of higher learning – look at Title IX and FERPA – that comes at the federal level. So our decision was in line with federal policies rather than state ones.”

But since this issue hasn’t been brought before a court, it’s tough to predict how the government might react.

“A lot of schools think they will lose federal funding if they comply with a state-legal medication, but we have not seen any instances of that happening,” said Morgan Fox, spokesman for advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Colorado. “I haven’t heard of a single case, but it’s still the most often cited reason I’ve heard for limiting medication on campus.”

Fox is quick to point out that while drugs on campus could violate law, disallowing prescribed medicine would disobey the Americans with Disabilities Act – itself a federal law. “I don’t know which law trumps the other. I’m not sure even the lawyers know.”

Even the law’s creators aren’t sure how the legislation might be interpreted. “All those who avail themselves of HB1 open themselves up to some risk,” cautions state Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, who sponsored the bill. “I’m sure we’ll need some tweaks.”

The federal government has given mixed signals on medical marijuana enforcement. In 2012, amid legalization campaigns in multiple states, the Justice Department announced that it would be “focusing its limited resources on significant drug traffickers, not seriously ill individuals who are in compliance with applicable state medical marijuana statues.”

However, the Justice Department has spent more than $300 million on medical marijuana crackdowns since 2009, and medical cannabis raids made up 4 percent of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2012 budget. It’s these conflicting signals that have administrators worried.

Illinois’ Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act is one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country. Patients must be diagnosed with any of 42 named chronic conditions, and those who qualify can purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from one of the state’s 60 dispensaries.

Unlike in most other states that allow medicinal cannabis, Illinois residents cannot grow their own plants, and the state health department will control all growth and sale of marijuana. All those involved, from growers to patients, will be fingerprinted and background checked.

“This new law will provide relief and help eligible patients ease their suffering, while making sure Illinois has the nation’s strictest safeguards to prevent abuse,” Gov. Pat Quinn said when signing the bill in August.

It’s unclear whether eligible college students will get the same relief.