By Jack Burns
The Arizona State Supreme Court ruled this week that college students who are medical marijuana users will no longer have to live in fear of being arrested and labeled as felony drug users if they are caught on campus with their medicine. The ruling also has national implications in states where cannabis is legal for medicinal use but possession on campus is not.
The fight for justice in Arizona was led by Arizona State University (ASU) student Andre Maestas. His dorm room was raided in March 2015, and .6 grams of cannabis and paraphernalia were found. Despite having an MMJ card, Maestas was charged with felony possession of marijuana.
After medical marijuana was made legal in 2010, state lawmakers decided to expand the referendum’s prohibitions in 2012 to include K-12 campuses, city buses, correctional facilities and college campuses. Maestas and his lawyer, Thomas Dean, fought the felony charges all the way to the AZ Supreme Court, which sided with the student saying that the wishes of the people of Arizona must be respected and any modification to the original medical marijuana referendum must not further prohibit citizens from access to legal weed.
According to a report from AZ Capitol Times, the unanimous ruling “paves the way for any of the state’s other more than 160,000 medical marijuana patients to have their drugs on campuses without fear of arrest and prosecution under state law.” The court acknowledged universities still have the right to refer illegal drug users for prosecution but said MMJ users (who are AZ state-issued MMJ card holders) should not be “guaranteed” to be prosecuted if found in possession of legal weed.
The Arizona ruling has national implications as well as it sets a precedent for states who may also have legal marijuana programs in place but also fear the loss of federal funding because the federal government stubbornly maintains Cannabis as a Schedule I Narcotic as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency. According to the ruling from the Arizona Supreme Court:
“A university does not have to guarantee prosecution for violations of its program. And it can refer violations of its program to the federal prosecutor,” the opinion states. “The State has not shown that a university would lose (or has lost) federal funding if a state prosecutor did not prosecute violations.
Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and The University of Arizona have all indicated that they will continue to enforce board policy and applicable federal laws.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, The AZ Board of Regents issued the following statement, which indicates it will continue to respect federal laws, even though it is a state institution. The statement reads:
While the Arizona Supreme Court today has ruled that medical marijuana patients are not subject to criminal arrest if they have their drug on college and university campuses, the universities and the board may enforce administrative policies prohibiting drugs on campus.
The statement seems to indicate that medical cannabis users may still be kicked out of the conglomerate of universities. Such actions will also likely be challenged in court. For now, medical cannabis users may still want to medicate discreetly, being fully aware that the universities still have not resolved the details following the ruling.
Hitting the bong, firing up a joint, or using a vape pen may be legally allowed in someone’s dorm room, but Dean warned that students with MMJ cards should not immediately assume they can get away with it. Students may still be subjected to school discipline or even expulsion from the dorms if someone such as a Resident Assistant writes them up. They simply cannot be criminally charged with felonies even if the students choose do so.
“Bottom line—it’s not a crime to possess marijuana on university campuses. It’s not a crime to consume marijuana in a dorm room… The argument is very strong that vaping is not ‘smoking’ and may, in fact, be used on the college campus. The Supreme Court struck down the statute which criminalized MMJ on university campuses, for everybody, visitors, university professors and students alike,” Dean concluded, adding that a university professor could even vape MMJ in front of the class and not be charged with a felony.
Dean told The Free Thought Project that he is hopeful an initiative will put recreational marijuana on the ballot in November, but that he lacks funding to secure all of the signatures necessary for full adult-use legalization.
Phoenix’s Maricopa County District Attorney Bill Montgomery has yet to make any public comments on the ruling. Montgomery, whose office is estimated to receive up to $2 million per year from TASC, a private drug-treatment company, has been accused of being incentivized to charge anyone and everyone found in possession of marijuana with felonies—even if it is just residue.
The blatant conflict of interest does not seem to faze the DA who has publicly voiced his objections to medical marijuana, even though legal weed helps far more people than it harms.
Maestas rejected the drug diversion program offered by the DA and run by TASC, fought the charges, was found guilty, appealed to the AZ Supreme Court, and won. Now Arizona university students who are medical cannabis users no longer have to fear prosecution, but they also cannot light up a joint and smoke wherever they wish. Universities still must iron out those important details to answer the question of how, when and where they can legally take their medicine.
Even though Arizonans have voted to make MMJ legal, possession of cannabis is still considered a serious felony. Arizona is the only state in the United States where possession of cannabis in any amount, even residue, is still considered a felony. We repeat: It’s the only state. Every other state has decriminalized possession to a misdemeanor.
It is high time—pun intended—for the Arizona State Legislature to end the practice of making criminals out of its citizens for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Even MMJ users get caught up in TASC, forcing them to be subjected to legalized extortion of their financial resources all in an effort to avoid felony convictions on their arrest records. How can a state have a legal weed program and continue to charge everyone else with felonies? It just does not make any sense—unless, of course, it is all about the money.
Dean said he wants five things from future Arizona cannabis legislation: immunity from DUI charges for having metabolites in one’s blood, protection from having one’s children taken away for being a cannabis consumer, expungement of criminal records for prior marijuana offenses, marijuana crimes no longer being defined as “felonies” in the state, and home-growing as a legal option for marijuana consumers.
Dean told TFTP that he hopes other states refer to the Arizona decision for guidance. At any rate, history has been made in the state.
“We’ve been fighting the marijuana prohibition for 48 years—it’s a combination of the prison-industrial complex and Reefer Madness,” Dean said. “Medical marijuana has shown us the sky is not going to fall if people smoke marijuana legally. We’ve been lied to about this drug. It’s not true what they’ve told us about cannabis. The government has done the public a disservice when they lied to us about marijuana and they now run the risk of never being believed.”