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Philly420: Why is Penn State still arresting students for pot?

Chris Goldstein is a marijuana advocate living in South Jersey.

Marijuana laws are changing across the country, but not on most college campuses. This is a growing problem for a new generation of young adults and medical marijuana patients who live in a world of legalized access.

Penn State is the latest school to offer a statement as to why they will continue to criminalize cannabis on their property even when the local ordinances shift.

The Borough of State College recently downgraded penalties for marijuana possession, which compelled the massive school to explain why they will keep putting tuition-paying students into handcuffs for small amounts of pot.

A post on the university website from August 15, 2016 states:

The Penn State Police have confirmed that they will not enforce the ordinance.

Because Penn State receives state and federal funding, the University is mandated to enforce state and federal laws. University policy prohibits the use or possession of marijuana in any amount on campus. This policy also prohibits the use or possession of medical marijuana. Although Pennsylvania's Medical Marijuana Act went into effect on May 17, marijuana in any form remains illegal under federal law.

Students using or possessing marijuana on- or off-campus also may be subject to disciplinary sanctions from the Office of Student Conduct. A violation of the Student Code of Conduct can be brought forward. Code of Conduct sanctions are separate from any legal charges and can be generated whether a student receives a summary offense, or state or federal charges.

That's right. Students busted with a single joint not only face criminal charges but also separate disciplinary action from the school.

Penn State went further by proclaiming a campus ban on state-legal medicinal cannabis. It will impact students and staff. Registered patients are offered no accommodations. It closely resembles discrimination, but it has a legal framework.

Pennsylvania's medical cannabis law, Act 16, has a provision to protect patients from losing their jobs. But a carefully constructed loophole was written in to cover this exact scenario for the universities.

b)  Employment.--

(1)  No employer may discharge, threaten, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate or retaliate against an employee regarding an employee's compensation, terms, conditions, location or privileges solely on the basis of such employee's status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana.

(2)  Nothing in this act shall require an employer to make any accommodation of the use of medical marijuana on the property or premises of any place of employment. This act shall in no way limit an employer's ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace or for working while under the influence of medical marijuana when the employee's conduct falls below the standard of care normally accepted for that position.

(3)  Nothing in this act shall require an employer to commit any act that would put the employer or any person acting on its behalf in violation of Federal law.

Do you see what they did there? Pennsylvania law now says institutions that intersect closely with the federal government can fire someone if they can't work without taking a dose of medical cannabis during the day.

This runs counter to decades of anti-discrimination and work equality efforts in America. Residents will not be welcome on campus simply because of the medication they take to survive. That means professors, administrators, maintenance personnel, even guest lecturers could be fired if Penn State finds out they use cannabis therapy.

There are just these few paragraphs in Act 16 to protect patients. But there is an entire chapter of the law dedicated to creating a research program for universities to study cannabis. In fact Penn State is working right now to create a program for industrial hemp farming.

So the school will be getting paid to study marijuana for medical uses but possibly firing professors who use it under state law?  This approach could be called institutional cognitive dissonance.

Princeton, Tufts and a cadre of other academic institutions have taken the very same position for several years. So, Penn State's backward and harsh policy can be understood as conforming to their industry.

What is completely inexcusable is just how many students Penn State is actually busting for small amounts of pot every year.

Data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System shows that in 2014 alone the Penn State University Police arrested 242 people for cannabis. Almost half (128) were 18 years old - freshmen.

Sure, 242 seems like a small number, but let's put it into perspective. Penn State police arrested a grand total of one person for cocaine and heroin possession (combined) in 2014. Yes, one.

They arrested just 153 people for drunkenness. All year.

Penn State police performed 35 DUI's and about 686 people were caught drinking under age. There was just one arrest for aggravated assault. Zero for robbery and zero for rape.

This enforcement focus on first-year toking isn't cheap.  I used a calculation based on RAND Corporation estimates that it costs $1,266 to perform an arrest for marijuana. So, the Penn State figures would suggest $306, 372 spent on marijuana possession enforcement.

Although Penn State and other schools claim to be enforcing federal law they do not send these cases to the U.S. Attorney. Most end up in the Centre County District Attorney's office, where they are duly prosecuted. Local taxpayers then spend about $242,000 each year processing those stoner students through court.

But does Penn State really have to perform the arrests? No.

The proof is in the data.

There are 46,000 students on the Penn State campus. But we have more than ten times as many students in Philadelphia every day, about 400,000. They are on more than two dozen campuses and most have a police department.

Temple, Drexel, Penn, Thomas Jefferson University and even my alma mater, the University of the Arts, have police units.

Our final number today is one of the biggest numbers I have written about in my years of research: Zero.

That's how many students were arrested for marijuana by every campus police department in Philadelphia, combined, in 2015.

Yes. Zero.

When campus police in Philadelphia encounter students with weed they call a Philadelphia cop. According to all of our data, that student is likely going to get a $25 code violation ticket under our decriminalization ordinance. No arrest, No permanent record. No trip to court. No plea deal with the prosecutor. No heavy fines. Yes they can still face academic disciplinary action.

All of the universities in Philadelphia are presumably bound by the same concerns over federal funding expressed by Penn State, yet they have found a better procedure.

Certainly, Penn State and other schools can put forward this absurd legal position on paper. It covers their federally funded behinds. Yet they must find ways to evolve their campus marijuana policies in the real world.

Medical patients deserve better than to be shunned from academia. Young adults deserve to experiment with cannabis in a safe environment without getting put into handcuffs.

Physicist Carl Sagan, swimmer Michael Phelps, sprinter Usain Bolt and  President Obama all had youthful experiences with cannabis. But the police never caught them.  By arresting students for marijuana, Penn State could be needlessly crushing the future of their brightest students.