With 65 percent approving, University of Washington students passed a referendum May 10 advising the school to equalize penalties for alcohol and pot. That's the first step in changing campus policy.
Currently, according to UW's official alcohol and drug-abuse statement, students are prohibited from using either substance on campus: "Violation of the University's alcohol and drug prohibitions is cause for disciplinary or other appropriate action."
However, according to Tim Kelly, the sophomore behind the pot vote (he's the president of UW's chapter of NORML/SSDP, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy), there's a disparity when it comes to enforcement. Residential advisers, who are like dorm moms, have repeatedly told Kelly they are allowed to simply pour a student's hooch down the drain. End of story (even for minors). But if marijuana is suspected, residential advisers are required to call the UW police—and then students face arrest, suspension, expulsion, or eviction from student housing.
Chris Jaehne, assistant director of residential life, confirms most of Kelly's depiction, but maintains that alcohol infractions are written up and minors could face punishment.
"The penalties for each substance should reflect the harms of the substance to the individuals," Kelly says. "The system the school has for alcohol works fine, so they should use that system for marijuana."
So Kelly, who's studying to become a doctor of psychology, approached the student government's board of directors earlier this year and persuaded them to place the penalty-equalization measure on the annual ballot. To illustrate the relative safety of pot to alcohol, Kelly and other supporters campaigned by staking flags in the campus lawn to represent annual fatalities from alcohol, aspirin, and tobacco; in an adjacent field, there were no flags, representing zero recorded deaths from marijuana. But despite passing handily, the measure is only a political statement—students cannot actually change the school's drug policy.
Next, UW's student-elected senate will consider a companion resolution, which, if successful, would demonstrate sweeping support from students and student government for biding reforms. But the student senate cannot alter administrative code, either.
So here's Kelly's plan: If the senate passes the companion resolution, he intends to leverage the mandate from both votes when lobbying UW administrators next year to "work out a deal so RAs are not required to call the police." While it's uncertain if the UW president would permit the changes, Kelly has already spoken to some members of the administration and believes codifying the reforms is possible.
"I think people would prefer that cops on campus could respond to a robbery instead of being caught in someone's dorm investigating a marijuana case," he said.
At first, Kelly seems your archetypical pot-smoking college student. A skinny 19-year-old, he wears the requisite baseball cap and he likes to listen to the psychedelic trance of Infected Mushroom. He grew up in Woodinville and was once arrested for pot.
But Kelly's interest in marijuana is driven not by drug culture, but rather science. He recounts spending afternoons after high school studying the human brain and Erowid.org, an encyclopedic journal on drugs with thousands of entries authored by chemists and users. (If you've never checked it out, Erowid is the most comprehensive, readable, and thoroughly documented resource for drug research on earth.) "I became fascinated with drugs," he said. "Erowid opened my eyes to the truths about substances and I found that they're not as bad as we've been told."
For instance, Erowid busts the myth that marijuana causes amotivational syndrome, the condition that allegedly turns good students into dropouts. It turns out the theory was developed after scientists doped up adolescent monkeys, which became layabouts. But those findings are contradicted by a study conducted by the U.S. Army on adult humans, who maintained their vigor.
"More people become physically addicted to alcohol than marijuana, and nobody has ever died from marijuana," Kelly notes in his list of discoveries. "Alcohol increases reckless behavior but marijuana makes you more cautious."
UW joins a trend as the 12th university to pass a campus penalty-equalization measure since 2005. University of New Hampshire administrators fully equalized penalties in response to their campus measure, whereas the brass at University of Maryland has stubbornly refused.