Uriel Sinai—Getty Images
By Eliza Gray
February 19, 2015

College administrators who have worked for years to snuff out marijuana on campus have a new problem: It’s going legal.

Or at least that’s the reality confronting schools in Colorado, Washington state, and soon Oregon. The legal sale of recreational marijuana to those over 21 will start in July in Oregon, thanks to a statewide ballot initiative last year. College deans won’t be among those celebrating.

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and like most public and private colleges across the U.S., the schools in Oregon have no choice but to comply. Colleges must implement drug-prevention programs to be eligible for federal funding—and as long as its federally illegal, that includes marijuana. So, with the legal retail sale of marijuana in Oregon approaching, college administrators across the state are tinkering with policy language and testing out marketing campaigns to make sure that, come July, their students know that no matter what the state law says, pot is still not allowed on campus.

“Everyone is thinking about what this looks like July 1,” Dr. Erin Foley, dean of students at the Oregon Institute of Technology. “The bottom line is for the federal government marijuana is still illegal, so that trumps state law because we get federal funding. It’s straightforward. The bigger piece for us is to make sure students are aware of that.”

A public school with just over 4,000 students, Foley said the college known as Oregon Tech is tinkering with a light-hearted marketing campaign, using plays on the word “pot” to teasingly remind students that the drug still isn’t allowed on campus. Administrators will also amend the language of their policy, which already prohibits illicit drug possession, to explicitly state that pot is included in the rules. Portland State University, another public university with almost 30,000 students, will be incorporating messaging about pot in its anti-smoking campaign.

Though the campus bans are straightforward, some Oregon administrators are still weighing how the rules apply to housing off campus. Steve Clark, a spokesman at Oregon State University, a public university with almost 30,000 students, said off-campus fraternities and sororities will be subject to the campus rules, but the university’s general counsel and the provost are reviewing the policy to see how it should be applied to non-school sanctioned off-campus housing.

Oregon might look for guidance from Colorado, where legal recreational pot went on sale last January. Some school administrators there say that legalization hasn’t presented much of a practical problem on campuses where most of the students are under 21. Ryan Huff, a spokesman at University of Colorado, Boulder, says the only change has been that campus police now can’t give a citation to anyone over 21 in possession of less than an ounce on campus. Huff did acknowledge that administrators have had to re-jigger their housing policies a bit to give freshmen who need medical marijuana an exemption from the requirement to live on campus.

MORE: The Rise of Fake Pot

The biggest problem seems to be for the administrators who focus on prevention. It is hard to communicate realistically about prevention and use of a drug that is still classified as among the most dangerous and deserving of the stiffest legal penalties by the federal government—and it’s hard to talk to students about how to safely use pot when federal law says they shouldn’t be doing it at all.

“Our campus professionals do sometimes feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place,” says David Arnold, who lives in Denver and is the Director of Alcohol Abuse Prevention Initiatives at the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals

Another problem is that funds to support prevention efforts in Colorado are focused on K-12. “The tax revenue everyone is really excited about? None of it is in higher education prevention,” Arnold said. “We have a lot of students come from out of state who believe that one of the perks of coming to this campus is that they will be able to use marijuana.”

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