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SUNY Cannabis Policy Remains Unchanged with the Arrival of Albany Dispensaries

By Eoghan Doran | March 13, 2023

With the Capital Region expecting its first recreational cannabis dispensary this month, the University at Albany – as with all SUNY campuses – will maintain its policies that make possession and use of cannabis on campus a violation of federal law. Yet some question whether such policies are the right approach.

According to Associate Director of Communications for Media Relations Mike Nolan, a student caught with cannabis on campus could face disciplinary action from the university that ranges from a warning to expulsion. That disciplinary action includes against students who are 21, the legal age by which the state in 2021 made recreational cannabis legal.

The university reminded students of the policies in a statement in April 2021, soon after the state governor signed the bill legalizing recreational marijuana. This bill has paved the way for the expected arrival of the first dispensary this month in New York in Schenectady.

The university’s statement to students regarding recreational cannabis (April 2021)

Photo Credit: Eoghan Doran

However, not everyone agrees with maintaining the current policies. In an interview with the Albany Student Press, UAlbany Psychology Professor and Author of “Understanding Marijuana,” Mitch Earleywine, said there are some potential benefits of permitting the use of cannabis on college campuses and that he questions the value of the policies.

“From my understanding, the school’s current policy is for money,” Earleywine said. “They would lose federal funding if they didn’t follow SUNY policy. But other than that, I don’t see any reason for not permitting a drug that is legal within their state.” The policy, he added, makes parents feel good about where they are sending their children.

Regarding medical marijuana, which is included in the SUNY-wide ban on cannabis, Earleywine said it can help students manage health issues, such as anxiety and side effects of chemotherapy.

“God forbid a student has to go through chemotherapy, but if that were the case, I would hope they have access to all treatments that could help,” Earleywine said. “If someone qualifies for a medical cannabis license, then I see no reason for not allowing them to use cannabis safely. Although there are other treatments, like opioids, cannabis is safer.”

As of 2023, under the Department of Health (DOH), medical cannabis products are not permitted on any college campus, public or private.

Earleywine, however, urged students and others to continue to respect cannabis and not mistake the legalization of cannabis with the idea that the substance is completely harmless.

“There have been findings that it can change brain development, although the findings are shaky,” Earleywine said. “It would be smarter to wait until you're older and in your mid-20s to use cannabis.”

Earleywine also added that if students do use cannabis, they should use it in a controlled and conscientious fashion.

“It’s not wise to wake up first thing in the morning and hit your bong,” Earleywine said. “You should wait till the end of the day to use, it should be used in a controlled manner and used wisely. But most issues people have can be solved with Benadryl.”

Earleywine said he was most concerned about properly educating people about the harmless methods to use cannabis and the potential risks in improperly using, rather than outlawing cannabis.

“It’s a shame there isn’t more education on the topics. The ‘Don’t Wake and Bake’ bumper stickers weren’t great at spreading the message,” he said, referring to the movement created in California in the late 90s and early 2000s with the goal of educating people on responsibly using cannabis. “I would like to see more cannabis safety in health education in schools. For example, my lab was one of the first to find information about vaporizers [THC/CBD oil] being safer for your respiratory system than smoking flowers.”

Earleywine, who formerly researched alcohol abuse and alcoholism, added that cannabis is “certainly safer than alcohol,” which is permitted on UAlbany campuses for students who meet the federal drinking age of 21 or older.

A 2021 study by Adie Rae, a neuroscientist from Washington State University, also supports cannabis is safer than alcohol. The study reported the risks of regular cannabis use are lower than the risks of alcohol use – as the CDC estimates that over 100,000 people die yearly due to excessive drinking and alcohol poisoning. Experts estimate the amount of cannabis needed to cause the death of a person is so large, it would be impossible for a person to overdose.

Despite cannabis growing in popularity in recent years, using cannabis still poses risks for the brain development of young adults. Kelly Gorman, the Director of the Office of Health Promotion (OHP) at UAlbany, commented on the steps students should take to ensure their safety while using and taking advantage of the resources on campus.

Gorman said the cannabis research is still lacking, making it difficult to assess the long-term effect of cannabis. “Any substance has benefits and risks,” she said. Gorman added that laws imposed in the 1990s, during the war on drugs, prevented any cannabis research.

“Because of that they made everything illegal, and they put such high restrictions on it, people weren’t able to do any research on it, so we don’t have research on the long-term effects of cannabis,” she said.

Gorman compared the situation to tobacco and cigarettes in the 1950s. “Right now, it is common knowledge that smoking cigarettes are bad, it gives you lung cancer. That research when it first started in the 1950s was so controversial that people were trying to stop the research, and even after a direct link was made between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, that research wasn’t made public for another five to 10 years.”

Similar to Earleywine, Gorman said she believes harm reduction is the best approach, to properly educate people on the risks of cannabis instead of promoting abstinence, “It's about equipping and empowering people with the information to make decisions that are right for them.” she said.

When asked what advice she would give a student interested in using cannabis, Gorman said, “I would take some time to explore what their motivation is. We don’t want to do things we don’t know why we're doing them, have a why for yourself.”

If a student does use cannabis, she urges them to limit dosing, to be in a safe environment with people they trust, to have one person that is sober to look out for everyone, and to not mix substances.

One benefit of the legalization of cannabis is that products sold in dispensaries must display the percentage of THC in the product, which allows people to control dosing. However, Gorman said there is no golden number, and the effect of a specific dose will vary for each individual.

Gorman provided some of the sign’s students should be aware of that indicate when someone is using cannabis in a harmful manner. “Some people do have adverse experiences with cannabis. Some folks might experience dizziness, an increased heart rate, and starting to sweat. Those would all be signs you are taking too much cannabis.”

Gorman added that the known long-term effects of cannabis abuse include impairment in memory, ability to focus in class, decreased reaction time, and sleep difficulties.

Gorman said that her office has a collegiate recovering program for students who find themselves struggling with overusing cannabis and other substances. “We have three weekly meetings and social events every month, where folks can build community and figure out their relationships with themselves, substances, and others,” she said.

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