June 25, 2018
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University system marijuana policy calls for zero tolerance, despite legalized medical use in Maine

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When it comes to medical marijuana and the University of Maine System, there is a strict zero-tolerance policy.

Carrying a legally issued medical marijuana card in Maine may mean a UMS student or employee can use the drug, but not on any of the seven system campuses.

“There can be no use of medical — or any other form of marijuana — on any campus in the University of Maine System,” Sally Dobres, associate director of human resources and director of equity and diversity, said. “There is a clear conflict between state and federal law [and] there is no real way to bridge that gap.”

Maine voters approved the legal use of medical marijuana in 2009 and subsequently supported expanding that law to increase the medical conditions allowing patients to purchase it from state-sanctioned clinics and cultivation centers.

The law was amended again last year eliminating the need for patients to register with the state.

“We are working to do everything we can to support people who are under a doctor’s care with medical marijuana,” Dobres said. “But they can’t use it on campus.”

UMS issued a blanket policy for all seven campuses in early 2011 outlining why legal medical marijuana use is impermissible for students, faculty, staff or visitors.

Federal drug-free school and workplace acts, coupled with federal criminal law, make use or possession of legal medical marijuana on campuses illegal, Dobres said.

Institutions of higher education that fail to adhere to the federal laws and acts run the risk of losing substantial financial backing and federal funds.

“For the University of Maine System, that means federal research grant money, federally funded student financial aid and other funding,” Dobres said. “It would be disastrous.”

That’s because the federal funding agencies would not target the individual user nor the campus on which medical marijuana was being used. Rather, the entire system could pay the price.

As Dobrest pointed out, it’s a hefty price.

Last year the system received $335,751,052 in federal funds. Of that, just over $215 million went to student aid, according to Peggy Markson, UMS public relations manager.

“If we knowingly allow illegal substances on campus we can lose the student aid they rely on to pay bills and a lot of research grant funding,” Dobres said. “That’s why we do not take it lightly [because] there are Draconian penalties.”

According to the system policy, state law prohibits a school or employer from enrolling, employing or penalizing an individual just because they are a legal medical marijuana patient, “unless it would cause a loss of a federal contract or funding.”

At the same time, Dobres said, individuals permitted to use medical marijuana in Maine likely have medical conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act.

As such, they would be entitled to reasonable accommodations on request.

But the issue gets a bit murky, Dobres points out, when medical marijuana is part of the equation.

“Under the ADA, individuals who use illegal drugs, including marijuana as defined by federal law, are not protected as individuals with a disability,” according to the UMS policy. “A court would also likely conclude that a Maine resident using medical marijuana as permitted under Maine law is nonetheless an illegal drug user under the ADA because the conduct violates federal law.”

Even if a court made an exception with regard to medical marijuana on the state level, a request to use the substance on UMS campus would not be considered a “reasonable request” because of the risk of losing those millions of federal dollars.

All that being said, according to Dobres, the system is ready and willing to work with students, faculty or staff in any way possible within the federal law to accommodate medical marijuana usage.

“If a student or employee who is on, say, a medication that causes severe nausea and when that person wakes up needs to take medical marijuana to deal with that, and therefore can’t be to work or to class at 8 a.m., we will work on making a flexible schedule,” she said. “If a student is on a campus that requires first-year students live on campus, and that student needs medical marijuana, we will provide an exception to that residence policy. They can’t use on campus but we will try to find every creative way we can so they can use off campus and not be penalized at work or in class.”

To date, Dobres said, she is unaware of any system office employees requesting accommodation under the policy, nor has she been contacted by any university campus deans or equal employment opportunity officers saying there are requests or problems under the policy.

Given that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 students and 5,000 employees systemwide, Dobres said she would not be surprised if there have been requests for accommodations at the individual campus level, but she just may not have heard about them.

Medical marijuana did become an issue on the Presque Isle campus last month after a visitor to UMPI was observed using it in a residence hall lounge area and the municipal police were called in.

“The person in question interacted with a student resident assistant who was unclear of the policy,” Jim Stepp, UMPI dean of students said. “At the time, the individual presented their permit allowing them to have medical marijuana and was asked to not bring [medical marijuana] back on campus.”

The system policy was subsequently reviewed with university staff, he added.

“As long as the individual has their card and a lawful amount of medical marijuana under the auspices of that card we are not going to do anything,” Matthew Irwin, Presque Isle police chief, said. “If the college does not want them on campus, we will help get them off campus [but] we will not arrest them for violating the policy.”

Enforcing that policy is up to each campus, Dobres said.

“If someone were to be seen using medical marijuana — or any other illegal drug — it is a matter for campus police or for those campuses who do not have police, to contact the local authorities,” Dobres said. “The purpose of the policy is not to turn people in, but it is to make it clear to students and employees that what you can do in the privacy of your own home does not extend to university premises [and] if you need some kind of arrangements we will do whatever we can to make them.”

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