The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state can’t criminally charge public college students for having and using marijuana on campus if they have a medical marijuana card.
The high court said a 2012 law banning medical marijuana on college campuses violated the Arizona Constitution’s protections for voter-approved laws. The court also vacated a marijuana possession conviction for the student, Andre Maestas, who fought the law.
An appellate court decision last year came to the same conclusion, saying the state violated the Arizona Constitution when it passed the 2012 law criminalizing cardholders’ possession or use of marijuana on college campuses.
When voters approved the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act in 2010, the act specifically said marijuana couldn’t be used or possessed in preK-12 schools, on school buses or in prisons, the Arizona Supreme Court noted.
The list of excluded places didn’t include college campuses, so the court ruled that voters didn’t intend to criminalize medical marijuana possession or use on campus.
Possession, use of marijuana still banned
But don’t light up yet, college smokers: Universities still ban the use and possession of marijuana on campus.
It’s just not a criminal violation for cardholders now.
That’s the case in other states that legalize marijuana for medicinal or recreational use. Public colleges and universities across the country prohibit the use and possession of marijuana on campuses because they must comply with federal laws to receive federal funding, they say.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, though 30 states and the District of Columbia have approved its use to some degree.
But students at most schools typically face disciplinary actions by the colleges for violating the rules, not legal ramifications.
So far this year, ASU campus police have made 45 arrests related to marijuana possession or use, according to campus crime logs.
On the university’s website, ASU cautions students that marijuana use and possession isn’t allowed on property the school owns or leases.
“Students with a medical marijuana card cannot use marijuana on campus or in ASU residence halls. Those caught using marijuana at ASU are subject to disciplinary action and arrest,” the university website says.
The Arizona Board of Regents reiterated Wednesday that federal law and board policy both prohibit the use and possession of marijuana and other illegal drugs on university campuses.
“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 regents said in a statement.
ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona have all indicated to the board that they will continue to enforce the board policy and federal laws on illegal drugs, the regents said.
It’s unknown exactly how many people who live, work or attend classes on college campuses in Arizona have medical marijuana cards.
The Arizona Department of Health Services doesn’t track how many medical marijuana cardholders are on college campuses. But about one-fourth of the state’s about 167,000 cardholders are age 30 or younger, the most recent numbers compiled by the department show.
Student fought against state marijuana law
The case weighed the extent to which lawmakers could add provisions onto voter-approved laws.
In 2010, Arizonans voted to create a medical marijuana program. Because of the state’s Voter Protection Act, lawmakers can pass only laws that “further the intent” of ballot measures, meaning they can’t overturn or restrict them, but can pass laws that further the purpose of what voters approved.
The measure included prohibitions on marijuana use and possession on K-12 campuses, but did not mention higher education institutions.
A 2012 law signed by former Gov. Jan Brewer prohibited medical marijuana use and possession at public colleges and universities.
Medical marijuana cardholders in Arizona can possess up to 2.5 ounces at a time.
Maestas received a medical marijuana card to manage back pain related to a misaligned vertebra.
The 2012 law made it a class 6 felony to possess marijuana on campus, even for cardholders. Maestas’ charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.
Maestas decided to fight the charges instead of agreeing to lesser penalties. He went to court, and his eventual sentence included a one-year probation, $750 fine and 24 hours of community service.
Judge Peter Swann of the appellate court wrote that expanding prohibited places for medical marijuana to college campuses didn’t “further the purpose” of the medical marijuana law voters approved in 2010, so it violated the Arizona Constitution.
The state, and the universities themselves, can still prohibit marijuana use and possession on college campuses, Swann said. And if people violate those rules, the colleges can have them removed or charged with trespassing, he said.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich appealed the ruling. The Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Feb. 22.
Loss of federal funding argument rejected
The Arizona Supreme Court decided Wednesday that the 2012 law clearly did not further the purpose of the medical marijuana act.
The high court also didn’t buy the state’s arguments that universities could risk federal funding if medical marijuana cardholders weren’t criminally penalized.
“The State has not shown that a university would lose (or has lost) federal funding if a state prosecutor did not prosecute violations of the university’s program,” the court wrote.
The 2012 law said colleges and universities were allowed to criminally charge for marijuana possession, but the court ruled that the schools don’t have the authority to enact criminal laws.
Victory for student who objected
Tom Dean, Maestas’ attorney, called the opinion a victory for Arizona voters.
Had the Legislature been able to “tamper” with a voter-approved law like it did in this case, it could have opened the door to further changes to ballot measures, Dean said.
Dean applauded Maestas for fighting the case all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court. Dean, an attorney who focuses on marijuana issues, represented Maestas pro bono.
But Maestas went through a lot of trouble to defend against the charges instead of accepting lesser penalties, Dean noted.
Maestas was willing to face felony prosecution because he didn’t believe the law was just, Dean said.
“He is a very courageous young man. … He really stood on principle,” Dean said.
Maestas was not available for comment Wednesday.