Betsy Sugar ‘21
On November 6, 2018, Michigan voted to legalize recreational marijuana, and voters in Missouri and Utah legalized marijuana for medical purposes. North Dakota voters, who also had a marijuana legalization measure on their ballot, voted no, and shut down the bill. Michigan joined nine other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and Missouri and Utah joined thirty states, in addition to D.C., to allow medical use of the drug. Canada also legalized the drug country-wide in their October elections.
Over this past decade, more states, counties, and cities have moved to decriminalize or legalize marijuana in some form. There is an important difference between legalization and decriminalization. Decriminalizing an act, such as possession of marijuana, means that the law treats possession similarly to a speeding ticket, resulting in a fine instead of jail time.
Often, after a state moves from decriminalizing to legalizing an act, such as marijuana possession, the question of those serving time in prison on possession charges arises. Sociology professor Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard explained, “Historically, the punishment that you receive for a crime remains irrespective of changes to the criminal code […] What it also means is that reductions in criminal status are also not retroactive.”
In Michigan, such policy will occur. The new laws address current use of marijuana and will not act as retroactive immunity. Deckard clarified that not all hope was lost for prior convictions; “What will happen in practicality is people with marijuana convictions will have an easier time in front of parole boards.” Once these laws go into effect, marijuana will be treated similarly to alcohol with strict production regulations and a 21 year old age minimum for recreational use.
North Carolina, much like the rest of the US, has moved to decriminalize marijuana in very small quantities, since around 2011. Possession of 0.5 ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor and results in a $200 fine. Possession of more than 0.5 and up to 1.5 ounces requires 1-45 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, but is not listed as a felony. If a person is caught with more than 1.5 ounces, the crime is a felony and will result in jail time.
As a result of Davidson’s location in a state in which marijuana is not legal in any form, the student handbook reflects those laws. The handbook ranks disciplinary action based on the severity of the drug in accordance with North Carolina legislation. For instance, the possession penalty for marijuana, a VI drug, which defines as different forms of marijuana, allows for up to three strikes. The first resulting in a $100 fine, a drug education program, and contacting parents. The same is true for a second offense, except the fine is $200. Finally, a third strike results in suspension for one semester after the semester of the third strike.
For athletes, the rules are even more stringent due to NCAA policy. The first two offenses result in a year suspension from their sport for each violation. If a third strike were to occur, the athlete would no longer be eligible to play for Davidson.
Harder drugs, like prescription drugs, cocaine, and the like, are listed as “all other controlled substances” in the student handbook, result in immediate suspension for at least one semester past the semester of the infraction for both non-athletes and athletes. That distinction is based upon the other laws in North Carolina, which has not decriminalized any other drugs.
However, the most interesting difference in repercussion is that between underage consumption of alcohol and any possession of marijuana. Both are illegal, and both are relatively decriminalized. In North Carolina, a minor in possession of alcohol can result in a $200 fine and community service, which is similar to that of the laws concerning marijuana. Both acts are illegal, yet underage consumption of alcohol at Davidson is treated much more lightly and is unlikely to lead to suspension.
Even though some rules are more reflective of legislation than others, Deckard pointed out, “[Private institutions] create this entire parallel policing structure to make it so that its members / its students don’t have to deal with the justice system as a whole.” In the handbook Davidson repeats that the policies are in place to protect the students. Perhaps that is true, but it may exist to shield students, not from harmful substances, but rather, as Deckard put it, from “the harsh glare of the public.”