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Schools wrestle with medical marijuana policies

Colorado and New Jersey permit certain students to receive treatment

As more states legalize medical marijuana, administrators grapple with whether to permit the substance on campus for students with certain health ailments.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia legalized medical marijuana in the past two decades. In June, Maine became the first state to require all school districts to create a policy on use of the substance. Colorado and New Jersey also passed laws in the last year permitting certain students to receive the treatment in K12 schools.

In November, a school in New Jersey became the first in the nation to enact such a policy, allowing a guardian to give a student with epilepsy and autism edible medical marijuana at school.

“A big challenge for districts is how to continue to maintain student safety in light of these changing laws and social norms,” says Francisco Negrón, general counsel and associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. “There’s not a lot of clarity when it comes to regulation.”

Marijuana remains classified as a controlled substance at the federal level, and is prohibited within 1,000 feet of schools. But in 2009, the Obama administration sent a memo to federal prosecutors encouraging them not to prosecute people who distribute marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with state law.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that states with medical marijuana laws must create strong state-based enforcement systems. The department reserves the right to challenge the state laws at any time.

Negrón recommends administrators consult their district’s attorney to learn about the law in their state, and any legal and operational liabilities. For example, districts that allow medical marijuana use will likely need to negotiate with insurance carriers to determine how their coverage applies to the new policies, he says. “It’s first and foremost a legal consideration—all of the concerns around student safety and insurance will first flow from what the law permits,” Negrón says.

Statewide change in Maine

The first-of-its kind Maine law states that a student who holds a written certificate for medical marijuana may not be prevented from attending school solely because they need to take the drug during the school day.

In January, the Auburn School Department, a district of 3,600 students, became one of the first districts in the state to adopt a policy. “It is new territory,” says Auburn Superintendent Katherine Grondin. “It’s important to be informed about what medicinal marijuana is, what it is being used for, and what forms it comes in, so you have intelligent responses when you are asked questions about it.”

Maine allows parents to obtain written certification from a physician for their child to use marijuana to treat health conditions including cancer, glaucoma and Crohn’s disease. Students under 18 cannot have medical marijuana in smoke form on school grounds—only as an oil or a tablet.

Auburn allows the guardians of students with a medical certificate to come to school and give students the substance at a designated time and place. The marijuana is never left on school property, and the school nurse is not involved in its administration, Grondin says.

No Auburn students have come forward to ask for the treatment yet, Grondin says.