HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Colleges are becoming a battleground in the conflict between federal and state marijuana laws as students who use medical pot challenge decades-old campus drug policies.

In states
where medical marijuana is legal, students disciplined for using it are
taking their schools to court. College officials argue they could lose
federal funding for failing to follow federal law that labels cannabis
an illegal drug with no accepted medical use.

Sheida Assar said
she was expelled from GateWay Community College in Phoenix last month
for violating the school’s drug policy after she tested positive for
marijuana, which she uses to treat chronic pain from polycystic ovary
syndrome.

She was studying diagnostic medical sonography, Assar
said, and an instructor had told her she wouldn’t have any problems if
she presented her Arizona medical marijuana card. She typically uses
marijuana to help her sleep and had never been under the influence in
class, she said.

“They yanked me out of class in the middle of the
school day,” said Assar, 31, of Chandler, Arizona. “They escorted me to
the administration like I was a … criminal. It’s discrimination, and
it also violates my rights under the Arizona medical marijuana law.”

The
legal challenges are coming from students studying nursing and other
medical specialties who, under school policies, must undergo drug
testing.

Assar and other students say they received approval to
use medical marijuana from college employees who serve students with
health-related needs — only to face discipline from higher-ranking
school officials.

Assar said she intends to sue GateWay to recoup
the $2,000 she spent on tuition and other educational expenses and seek
more money in damages. Her lawyer already has been in contact with the
school, she said.

A GateWay spokeswoman, Christine Lambrakis, said
that she could not confirm Assar’s status at the school and that the
college continues to prohibit marijuana use.

Asked about an
Arizona Supreme Court ruling last year that overturned a 2012 state law
that made possession or use of marijuana on college campuses a crime,
Lambrakis said the school is in the process of reviewing its policies
and will not change them in the meantime.

Thirty-three states and
Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana, and 11 states and Washington,
D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, creating clashes with
federal law that have been playing out in courts, mostly in employment
cases that have had mixed results for medical pot.

There don’t
appear to be efforts by recreational marijuana users to challenge
college drug policies, observers say. That’s likely because states limit
recreational use to people 21 and older, excluding most college
students, and because there haven’t been successful legal challenges to
campus alcohol policies even though state laws allow people 21 and over
to drink, they say.

States with medical marijuana laws allow use
by people 18 years or older with a doctor’s recommendation, as well as
by minors if their parents approve.

Connecticut nursing student
Kathryn Magner sued Sacred Heart University last month after she tested
positive for marijuana and was barred from attending required clinical
medical rounds, according to her lawsuit. She had begun using marijuana
legally in her home state of Massachusetts over the summer to treat
conditions that were not disclosed in legal documents.

Connecticut
law allows medical marijuana and forbids public and private colleges
from discriminating against students who use it. A judge cited the
state’s law in ordering that Magner, 22, from Marlborough,
Massachusetts, be allowed to return to the medical rounds. The lawsuit
was settled under undisclosed terms.

Before the settlement, she
stopped using marijuana, passed a drug screening and obtained approval
to use medical pot from the Fairfield school’s Office of Student
Accessibility to try to salvage her nursing career, her lawsuit said.
But nursing school officials wouldn’t budge, her lawsuit said.

“Many
schools disability services offices are not universally listened to by
the university,” said Michael Thad Allen, an attorney for Magner. “It
just shows that these kinds of issues will become more common if
employers and schools don’t abide by the law.”

Sacred Heart
requires students to “obey the law at all times,” but it treats medical
marijuana like other disability-related requests and “seeks to provide
reasonable accommodation under the law,” school officials said in a
statement.

In Florida, Kaitlin McKeon, of Naples, is suing Nova
Southeastern University for expelling her from its nursing program in
Fort Myers last year after she tested positive for marijuana. She has a
state medical marijuana card to take the drug for several conditions.

McKeon
also said school officials told her there would be no problem with her
use of medical marijuana under the provisions of state law.

But
after she failed the drug test in January 2018, higher-ranking officials
moved to expel her, saying she violated the school’s drug policy, her
lawsuit says.

“It’s really sad that Nova Southeastern … took
this stance on this issue and is really preventing a really good, caring
person from entering the nursing field and living out her dream because
she chose a medication that’s legal in Florida but not one that they
recognize,” said her lawyer, Michael Minardi.

Nova Southeastern officials said they cannot comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuits have the potential to set legal precedents on the use of medical marijuana at colleges.

In
the meantime, advocates say, universities can lighten penalties so
students do not face expulsion or suspension for legally using medical
marijuana.

“Universities can effectively decriminalize it, de-punish it and make it not something they focus on,” said Jared Moffat, campaigns coordinator for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group for pro-marijuana laws.

By Dave Collins

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