How will legal marijuana in Illinois affect Iowa campuses?

'College kids have been using marijuana for decades'

Trimmed marijuana, in various categories, is seen at shop in Denver. (Tri-City Herald/MCT)
Trimmed marijuana, in various categories, is seen at shop in Denver. (Tri-City Herald/MCT)

More than 10,000 of Iowa’s public university students this fall came from Illinois — making that state second only to Iowa in feeding the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa enrollment pipelines.

And in less than a week, recreational marijuana will be legal in Illinois, for residents and visitors alike — while its possession and sale remain illegal in Iowa.

Although nothing has changed for the Hawkeye State, Illinois’ proximity — and its reliable pool of university students, who venture home for weekends, holidays, and summers — could affect Iowa’s campuses and enforcement of their drug policies, which prohibit the possession, use and sale of illegal substances.

“I personally think the Legislature needs to do something,” Cedar Rapids-based lawyer Skylar Limkemann said.

“That shouldn’t be a serious misdemeanor. That’s a stiff charge, and if you get a conviction for it, that’s lifelong for people.”

When asked whether the campus will be changing anything in light of the looming legalization across the border come Jan. 1 — including whether officers will be altering their practices or training — University of Iowa officials stressed marijuana sale and possession remains illegal.

“The UI residence halls are substance-free environments, and the possession of illegal drugs is prohibited,” UI Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Hayley Bruce said. “We encourage students to follow the rules, make healthy choices and seek out the help of alcohol and drug education services on campus if they are struggling.”


Iowa State and UNI policies also maintain marijuana is prohibited — with UNI pointing to the state as its guide and ISU citing Board of Regents policy, even in cases of medical marijuana use.

“The state of Iowa has legalized low-THC cannabis oil for usage with certain specified medical conditions,” according to ISU policy, which adds, “Marijuana-based medications and oils are not permitted at Iowa Board of Regents institutions.”

Enforcement and education

But marijuana enforcement on Iowa’s public universities has been shifting over time — especially at the University of Iowa, where on-campus drug arrests have plummeted, even as reported marijuana use ticks up.

In the campus’ most recent health assessment from spring 2019, 7 percent of students reported daily marijuana use — up from 2.7 percent in 2014. Nearly 17 percent of the UI respondents reported using marijuana on 10 or more days in the past 30, more than double the national rate of 8 percent, according to the UI assessment.

At ISU, a most recent student health assessment from 2017 found nearly 46 percent reported using marijuana in the past 30 days, up from 30 percent in 2015 and from 18 percent in 2012.

An assessment at UNI found nearly 11 percent of respondents in 2017 reported any marijuana use in the past 30 days, up from 9 percent in 2015 — lower use than on the other campuses.

Despite those increases, on-campus drug abuse arrests have remained static in recent years at UNI, and they’ve decreased at Iowa State and at UI — which saw on-campus drug arrests tank from 59 in 2015 to eight in 2017 and 12 last year.

A UI police officer earlier this year testified in Johnson County court that, as part of his training in 2016, he was told officers no longer can pursue charges against students found with drugs in their dorm rooms if a residence hall staffer already entered and found paraphernalia.

That change, he said, came after a judge determined RAs are state agents and thus are conducting administrative searches that are not admissible in criminal proceedings.


Although UI police would not respond to The Gazette’s questions about whether they’ve shifted their practice or provided officers new guidance, former UI officer Jackie Anderson — who conducted field training — confirmed the UIPD change.

“Our practice had been zero tolerance,” Anderson said. But she noted the change came after, “The court found that RAs were agents of the state when they searched dorms and then called UIPD.”

In that marijuana enforcement — especially on campus and in the residence halls — already is complicated and can be convoluted, Anderson said the Illinois legalization should prompt UI Housing and Dining, in conjunction with UI police and UI Student Legal Services, to up student education.

“Emphasis should be placed on Iowa’s possession laws, as well as the long-term consequences of a drug related conviction, such as on job applications and with respect to federal student financial aid,” she said.

Education also is a focus for schools just east of the Mississippi River in Illinois — where, despite legalization, marijuana remains largely prohibited on campus.

Colleges such as Augustana and Western Illinois University, for example, plan to ramp up campaigns once students return from winter break.

Justin Schuch — who leads Western Illinois’ student rights, responsibilities and retention initiatives — said his campus’ educational efforts stress students still can’t have marijuana on campus.

Wes Brooks, Augustana’s vice president and dean of student life, said the Rock Island-based college also is talking to students about the effects marijuana can have on the body.


“Augustana wants to help educate students and make them aware of our policy being that we are a drug-free campus and that it’s very important to live out our mission of mind, body and spirit,” Brooks said.

‘Much ado about nothing’

And still, some don’t think legalization will have any big effect on college campuses at all — including for those states such as Iowa abutting newly legal zones while maintaining a prohibition.

“There already is plenty of marijuana on college campuses in Iowa,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director for the Washington, D.C.-based NORML Foundation, which promotes marijuana and marijuana policy education.

“College kids have been using marijuana for decades. I think it’s much ado about nothing.”

He cited a recent federally funded study analyzing the criminal justice impacts of marijuana legalization on states and neighboring non-legal states. The study found legalization was “not associated with any significant increase in cannabis-related criminal activity in neighboring states or counties.”

According to the research from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, data suggests legalizing the recreational use of marijuana “did not have a noticeable impact on indicators in states that bordered those that legalized.”

Iowa could be the anomaly if law enforcement makes marijuana enforcement a greater priority in the wake of Illinois’ legalization, Armentano said.

“But do I believe there is going to be a cause and effect where suddenly there’s greater use in Iowa because a neighboring state has enacted this law?” he said. “Students in Iowa, like students in every state in America, are using marijuana and have been using marijuana irrespective of the law.”

That, he said, is why states such as Illinois are changing their marijuana policies.

“They’re bringing the market above ground and regulating it,” he said. “Our position is not that marijuana is innocuous. But that any potential risks that marijuana may pose to both the individual consumer and society as a whole is best mitigated by a policy of legalization, regulation and public education.

“It is our position that these risks are greatly exacerbated by criminal prohibition.”

Robert Connelly of the Quad City Times contributed to this report.

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