D.C. likely to decriminalize pot possession, but changes won’t affect college students

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The D.C. Council will vote next week on decriminalizing marijuana, but it will have no effect on campuses in D.C.

The D.C. Council will revisit a bill next week to decriminalize marijuana in the city, but officials from nearby universities say the new law would not allow students to smoke on campus.

Individuals caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would face fines of about $25, but the consequences for college students would not change because universities would still look to comply with federal laws.

GW, American, Georgetown and Catholic universities said their policies would not change if marijuana is decriminalized because all follow federal laws, which classify marijuana possession as a misdemeanor or felony. Gallaudet University said it would not speculate on the changes.

If schools do not comply with federal law, they are in “jeopardy of losing federal dollars,” said Paul Zukerberg, a lawyer who has worked on marijuana cases in D.C.

Universities must comply with federal laws in order to receive federal government funding, according to a 1989 amendment still in effect today. The Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments requires institutions to adopt drug and alcohol prevention programs to be eligible for funding, including federal student loans.

Council member Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, said the legislation was “100 percent” likely to pass, making marijuana possession a civil rather than criminal offense and slapping violators with a fine of $100 for smoking in public.

Council members grappled with the bill’s language in a hearing Thursday, grilling Wells about details such as the fine amount and what behavior would justify a legal search by police.

Other schools in states where marijuana is legalized, including Washington and Colorado, have not changed their policies. The challenge facing some schools was not the law itself, but students’ understanding of the law. Current Washington state laws, passed in 2012, treat marijuana offenses like alcohol violations.

Steve Rittereiser, a police commander at the University of Washington-Seattle, said students need more education about the state’s law.

“I think there was a widespread, immediate assumption that it was okay to smoke marijuana anywhere in the state of Washington. You can’t do it in public anywhere,” Rittereiser said. “One of the biggest challenges was to remind people of that.”

The Council will hold the first of two votes on the bill Feb. 4.

Susan Huang and Samantha Sorbaro contributed reporting.

This post was updated Feb. 3, 2014 to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet reported that Gallaudet University said its marijuana policies would not change in light of D.C. law. The college actually declined to speculate on the changes.

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