In a major win for medical cannabis patients in Arizona, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that public college students with medical cards cannot face criminal charges for possessing or using marijuana on campus. The court ruled against a 2012 law that banned cannabis on public higher education institutions, finding it unconstitutional and a violation of voters’ intent. The court’s ruling also vacated the cannabis possession charge of the student who fought the law—and won.
Arizona voters approved the state’s medical marijuana program in 2010. Originally, the law placed prohibitions on having and using cannabis on preschool and elementary school campuses, school buses and prisons. But the law did not restrict medical cannabis on college and university campuses.
Arizona has a Voter Protection Act, which means lawmakers can’t pass laws that overturn or restrict anything voters approved. Instead, they can only pass legislation that “furthers the intent” of the measure voters passed.
So when Arizona passed a law in 2012 that banned medical cannabis use at institutes of higher learning, it violated the Voter Protection Act. The ban, in other words, did not further the intent of the law, since voters did not intend to ban medical cannabis on campus.
That’s exactly the argument Andre Maestas used to vacate his 2014 criminal charge for marijuana possession when he was a student at ASU. In 2014, ASU police arrested Maestas for having just 0.4 grams of cannabis in his dorm room.
The state’s medical cannabis program permits cardholders to possess up to 2.5 ounces at a time. But Maestas was charged with a class 6 felony for possession.
Prosecutors ultimately reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and tried to reach a plea deal. But Maestas fought the charges in court and ended up appealing his sentence.
Last year, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in Maestas’ favor and dismissed his conviction for possession. The state, however, continued to pursue charges by appealing the ruling, which brought the case to the Supreme Court.
Even though medical card holders can use cannabis on college campuses without legal consequences, they can still face disciplinary action from their universities. Many public universities across the country ban cannabis use and possession even if a state has legalized it.
Public universities say their federal funding is on the line. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. And schools say they must comply with those laws to remain eligible for federal grants and subsidies.
In the case leading up to Wednesday’s Arizona Supreme Court decision, the State used this loss of funding argument to oppose the repeal of the 2012 law. But the court found that “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 also revoked universities’ ability to criminally charge someone for marijuana possession, something the 2012 law allowed. Schools do not have the authority to enact criminal laws, the court ruled.
So, students who break their university’s weed rules won’t face criminal charges. But their schools can still enact tough sanctions on violators.
Arizona State University, for example, prohibits anyone from using or possessing marijuana on campus or in a residence hall whether they have a medical card or not. Students who break the rule face disciplinary action and arrest, according to the university website.
The Arizona Department of Health Services doesn’t track how many college students in Arizona have medical marijuana cards. But of the state’s roughly 167,000 registered patients, 25 percent are 30 years old or younger.
So if you’re a medical cannabis patient attending college in Arizona, don’t worry about facing criminal charges for lighting up. Just know the best place to medicate is still somewhere off-campus.
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