Arms Over Meds

Conservatives in the Arizona legislature want guns galore on campus—but not a whiff of weed

Sometimes, a parallel universe just smacks you upside the head. One such moment occurred recently, when the Arizona Legislature birthed a pair of bills that would—conversely—allow gun fanatics to pack heat on campus, and ensure that sick students can't toke medical marijuana.

One bill has the support of college muckety-mucks; the other most definitely does not. But in this alternate reality called Arizona, neither measure is much of a surprise.

The gun bill, Senate Bill 1474, yet another love child from our firearm-adoring lawmakers, would allow folks to carry weapons onto the UA and other campuses. It's based on the notion that heavily armed students and faculty members could be perpetually poised to draw down on massacre-minded nutcases. This is the tweaked-up version of a measure vetoed last year by Gov. Jan Brewer—and it is still fiercely opposed by the campus establishment.

By contrast, the marijuana bill—introduced by Phoenix Republican Rep. Amanda Reeve, and enjoying the endorsement of university chieftains—would ensure that the demon weed does not waft its way through Arizona's halls of higher learning. That's despite the fact that voters approved the use of medical marijuana statewide in 2010.

The anti-pot measure, known as House Bill 2349, passed a House vote on Feb. 16.

Reeve didn't return numerous phone calls seeking comment for this article. But her effort follows several failed attempts by Brewer and state Attorney General Tom Horne to hogtie the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. Their various maneuvers—from suing cannabis clubs to refusing to license dispensaries—hit a wall in January, when Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama ordered Brewer to implement the new law.

Thus, the people's will was upheld—except perhaps on taxpayer-funded college campuses. While the original act prohibits medical marijuana in public schools, there were no such restrictions for universities. Reeve's measure would change that, in a move likely to spark a pricey court challenge.

Reeve was prodded along in her efforts by Kristen Boilini, a lobbyist working for several community colleges. A call to Boilini's Phoenix firm, K.R.B. Consulting, was not returned.

But C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Pima Community College, says there's little ambiguity on his campus. "The federal position on this is pretty clear. And we're not going to do anything to violate the law."

The restrictions were also strongly supported by the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the state's public universities. "Drugs don't have a place in a university environment," says board spokeswoman Katie Paquet.

To flesh that out, Paquet forwarded the board's official statement. It cites the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act, and the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which announce that "no institution of higher education shall be eligible to receive funds or any other form of financial assistance under any federal program, including participation in any federally funded or guaranteed student-loan program, unless it has adopted and has implemented a program to prevent the use of illicit drugs and abuse of alcohol by students and employees."

But here's the rub: That threat is pure hokum. In an earlier interview with the Tucson Weekly, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Sara Gast told us that student loans hardly seem at risk. "I checked with our federal student-aid office," Gast said, "and there has never been any school that has lost their eligibility for Title IV funds due to allowing medical marijuana."

Among other things, Title IV funds refer to direct federal student loans provided to universities. Approximately $200 million of those funds are awarded to the UA each year.

Nor have schools seen their federal research money cut as punishment for breaching federal drug laws, says Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C. "I've never heard of a case of federal funds being pulled back or restricted from campuses or their research programs with regards to medical marijuana. As long as schools have a drug-free policy in place, most schools are able to work out clauses where they can make exceptions to it."

According to Morgan, 17 states and the District of Columbia currently allow medical marijuana, and another 17 are considering such a move. And in many of those states, he says, universities are taking an approach far different from their Arizona counterparts. "Most institutions will have a policy against marijuana use," he says, "and they can keep that policy in place while not going after patients who have medical-marijuana needs. They can make case-by-case exceptions for those cases, and many institutions do."

In the meantime, the UA Police Department treads a tenuous line. Department spokesman Sgt. Juan Alvarez didn't return a phone call seeking comment for this story. But in an earlier interview, he said students found with legitimate medical marijuana would be referred to the dean of students rather than face arrest. Associate Dean of Students Kendal Washington White also failed to return several phone calls seeking comment. But in the past, her office's stated policy was that students caught with medical marijuana would be placed on academic probation, required to perform community-service work, and run through a drug-education program.

Longtime Tucson medical-marijuana advocate Michelle Graye says these conflicting laws make little sense on a modern campus. "What a schizophrenic position to put the university in. They say, 'We don't allow drugs on our campus.' But in what world are alcohol and marijuana not the same things? Then the crazy Legislature is using the (federal funding) as a wedge against them."

Ultimately, the UA will probably face a lawsuit to weed things out, says Jaime Gutiérrez, the school's vice president for external relations. "I suspect that this is going to be litigated, and somewhere along the line, the courts are going to have to decide. But it's our position right now that the federal law is supreme, absent a court decision."

In the meantime, Gutierrez says the UA will stick to its guns—regardless of whether research funding or student aid is actually being withheld. "I'm certain the University of Arizona is not going to make this a trial case to see if we can continue getting financial aid and allow employees and students to use medicinal marijuana."