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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Marijuana Smoking on Penn State’s Campus No Longer Safe

On Behalf of | Aug 28, 2013 | Uncategorized

It might be hard for current Penn State students to believe this, but there was once a time when you could smoke marijuana in the dorms and around campus and no one really cared. Those days are over. Of course, the irony is that marijuana is far more mainstream and socially acceptable now than ever before, at Penn State and everywhere else. It used to be that most fraternities and sororities frowned upon marijuana use as much as they despised tattoos and piercings, yet today’s students would not even look twice if they saw a sorority girl with a pierced eye brow and lower back tattoo pull a tube at a frat party. College tokers were once comprised largely of counterculture groups like hippies, punks, later day beatniks, hipsters, avante garde intellectuals and that loveable group found on every big college campus: the stoner geeks into sci fi, comic books, video games and fantasy role playing games. Those traditional stoner groups still smoke weed, but today’s tokers also include those clothed by Abercrombie and Fitch and The Gap.

Currently, Penn State far more aggressively targets marijuana use that at any time in the past. From 1986 through the spring of 1993, only 19 students were brought before Student Affairs for a first offense charge of possession of marijuana for personal use. Now, we see far more students charged for this violation of the Penn State Code of Student Conduct in a single semester. This is quite shocking, not because it shows a massive increase in marijuana use on campus, but rather because it shows far more aggressive enforcement.

I went to Penn State in the early 1990s. I can tell you first hand that we were not an East Coast branch campus of Brigham Young or a northern outpost of Bob Jones University. People smoked marijuana in the dorms and around campus when I was a student just like they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Granted, a much higher percentage of students and a much more diverse group of students smoke today than they did 20 or 30 years ago, but the main difference between then and now is that the RAs and Penn State Police no longer look the other way when it comes to victimless crimes. In the old days, you were far more likely to get in trouble for obnoxiously screaming out your dorm window during quiet hours of finals week than for blazing up a bowl while quietly listening to Pink Floyd.

So why did things change? Some people blame Graham Spanier, who served as Penn State president from 1995 to 2011. This is a logical conclusion, as Penn State’s crackdown on marijuana took place during his administration. Also, Spanier made no secret that he wanted to change Penn State’s image as a party school drowning in beer. It would only make sense that he would want to curtial marijuana use as well.

The way that Penn State went about cracking down on marijuana use is quite simple. They stopped ignoring it and started actively going out of their way to criminally charge users. RAs are now instructed to call the police when they smell marijuana. Although there are still some cool RAs who will look the other way or give a verbal warning, plenty do call the police. If you are in your dorm room when the police show up, there is pretty much no escape. If you do not consent to a search, the Penn State Police will take the time to get a search warrant, even if that means waking up the on-call magisterial district judge at 2:00 a.m.

I would have to say that in the current climate, the Penn State dorms are among the least safe places in Pennsylvania to smoke marijuana. You are playing Russian roulette. If you smoke enough times in the dorms, you will be caught.

Even if you are not smoking in the dorms, your stoner neighbor just might get you in trouble. The police are not blood hounds. It is often difficult to discern from what dorm room the smell of cannabis originated. I am sure you have had the experience of walking in an off-campus apartment hallway reeking of weed, with no clue where the smell is coming from. Well, the police do not have a more refined sense of smell than you do. A lot of times, they get the wrong door. How do I know this? Because I will sometimes have a client who insists that he or she was not smoking any weed and, in fact, the police find neither marijuana nor drug paraphernalia in that student’s room. Yet these students do get in trouble when the police find alcohol in the fridge, fake IDs and Adderall pills with no prescription. The simple explanation is that someone else on the floor was smoking and even though the police failed to identify the source of the marijuana smoke, they still managed to find something illegal while searching the wrong room. 

Some students realize that smoking in the dorms is a bad idea, so they decide to take a walk to more secluded areas of campus. The problem with this is that the Penn State Police know exactly where the preferred toking spots are. Therefore, they actively patrol these areas. If they see a glowing ember moving around in a circle, and encounter the smell of burnt ganja upon approach, chances are at least one of the people in the group will be charged criminally, while everyone in the group can expect to meet with the Office of Student Conduct.

Quite simply, most police forces in the United States do not have the manpower to go out of their way looking for kids smoking weed or to respond to a “complaint” about the smell of marijuana. Well, the Penn State Police are not an average police force. First of all, the Penn State campus is very safe. There is very little crime per capita, and the violent crime rate is extremely low. That is what we would expect given the demographic of campus residents. While most police forces must prioritize dangerous crime, the Penn State Police have the resources to tie up half the shifts of two officers on a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia investigation.

The fact that more students than ever before now smoke marijuana, coupled with an aggressive police response, has created the worst possible scenario for Penn State stoners living on campus. You have two alternatives: either don’t smoke on campus or get off-campus housing as soon as you can.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He has extensive experience in marijuana cases, and he is the only State College attorney, who is a member of the NORML Legal Committee.

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