Marijuana. Weed. Ganja. Cannabis. Pot. Doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s a hot-button issue in American culture right now, especially with the full legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington since the last election and marijuana legislation in Congress in several more states. The issue of marijuana is one which has plagued college campuses for years. But how is it affecting Elon University?

Students by day, smokers by night

It’s a warm spring night at Elon. Some students are holed up in the library writing papers, some are at the gym working on their beach bods for banquet weekends, some are cheering on their favorite team on TV, some are already passed out from exhaustion and some are recovering from the sunburn they sustained from the hot sunny day. But whether they be few or many, students somewhere in the Elon area are transitioning from baking in the sun to getting baked in the moonlight.

For Nate*, Ben*, Brian* and John*, this ritual is one they would be doing regardless of the nice weather. It’s a routine they’ve gotten into, one they do three or more times a week. They pile into the car, crank up some tunes and light up a joint as they drive off campus.

“This might be one of my best joints all year,” Ben says with a grin. He inhales and hacks a bit, then hands it off to Nate.

“I love cruising,” Ben says. “It’s probably one of my favorite things to do. Good music, good friends, good weed, that’s my life. The best is when you’re just in a nice safe location.”

The reason for safe locations is to tamp down paranoia.

“Cause you want to make that level of paranoia the least it can possibly be,” John says as he takes the joint. “I feel like the minute that weed becomes legalized, it will just become a better drug.”

The growing haze in the car clears a bit when John opens his window. To someone unfamiliar with the practices of weed smokers, it seems like a whole new world of coughing, laughing and smoke. A world of 90s music. A world free of problems.

Well, except the fear of the “squale” or the “pigs” — the police.

“A lot of people, especially when they’re new to smoking, it’s like they smoke and weed can cause paranoia,” Ben says. “And being scared of the cops is not a healthy thing when you’re on a drug that can cause paranoia.”

Brian says while they’re willing to take the risk of smoking, they’re still nervous about getting caught and try to be as safe as possible. After they get past the possibility of getting caught, typically their next big concern is what music to play, a topic Ben and Brian often disagree on.

But as the conversation flows on, it turns out Ben and Brian’s opinions differ on other things as well, like the culture of weed at Elon.

“I feel like at Elon, because there’s a lot of supervision, which is great because the classes are smaller, you check in a lot more with professors and so you have events that you have to go to,” Brian says. “And that’s why drugs aren’t able to overtake the lives of many, while at other big schools, when students don’t check in and they have huge lecture classes, you can let it become the entirety of your life.”

But Ben says he knows people at other schools who are able to handle being high all the time and still function at a normal level, and he says he thinks these people exist in the context of Elon as well.

Ben and Brian also seem to disagree on the possible issues with legalizing marijuana.

“It’s no worse for you than alcohol or tobacco,” Ben says. “That’s unarguable. It’s at most on par with those, and those are legalized, so by right, those should be in the same classification. My argument is that marijuana would not be as detrimental to society as alcohol is.”

Brian says if marijuana is added to the current equation, it might create a bigger problem. But Ben says if we go off past example, banning illegal substances makes the problem worse.

“Now let’s consider prohibition,” he says. “Prohibition was led by a massive women’s coalition. Prohibition then led to an increase in alcoholism and drinking across the country. You illegally prohibit it, and it spikes.”

After a few minutes of debate, the guys quiet down a bit and just enjoy the cruise, talking about other things and, after a while, about how marijuana affects them. John says it affects everybody differently.

“I think weed just makes you more aware of everything,” Nate says. “Like you focus on more things. Because I will think about the way that my nose hairs feel for 20 minutes.”

Ben says he occasionally gets lost in a train of thought for long periods of time when he smokes.

And after a long bout of thinking and conversation, the boys head back to campus, back to their normal lives as students. How many students have this type of ritual? While the boys said they don’t know for sure, they feel a

lot of students do what they do from time to time.

Is the grass greener in college?

Much like underage alcohol use, marijuana use may be kept under the rug, but it is certainly not absent from universities nationwide. And with the recent legalization of medical and non-medical marijuana in several states, the issue of marijuana on college campuses is becoming more complex than ever.

But just how common is marijuana?

According to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), marijuana use in 18 to 25 year olds is the highest it has been in at least 10 years. Nineteen percent of the population in that age group said they had used marijuana within a month prior to the study.

“For young adults in many ways, the drug levels have remained pretty constant and in some ways have gone down,” said Brad Stone, a press postman for SAMHSA. “But the one place that we have seen a rise is in marijuana use.”

Stone said the survey, which interviews approximately 67,500 people per year, accurately determines what direction the nation is moving with drug use, though it can’t determine why.

Marijuana use has increased nationwide, and Elon students seem divided on whether marijuana has a strong presence at the university.

Cameron*, an Elon University sophomore, smokes weed several times per week. He said he believes many students at Elon smoke marijuana, if not regularly then at least recreationally.

“It’s incredibly common,” he said. “I think about everybody you run into does it.”

Jodean Schmiederer, assistant dean of students at Elon, disagreed. She said most students view marijuana culture through the people with which they surround themselves.

“I think the perception is that everybody does it,” Schmiederer said. “But really everybody doesn’t do it. I think you routinely see it, and so the perspective is it’s widely accepted and that everybody does it just because you see it happening frequently. But one person smoking doesn’t mean that everybody is smoking.”

Freshman Ashley Halinski, who considers herself opposed to marijuana use, said she agrees who students hang out with determines how common they think the drug is. She said she feels marijuana is less common at Elon than at larger schools, but is still fairly common.

Cameron, on the other hand, said he feels marijuana use at Elon is very common.

“I think there’s a high volume of people who smoke weed in comparison to the total number of people who go here,” he said. “I think if it was a larger school, maybe it wouldn’t be the same. But if you’re saying we have 5,000 students, I would think at least half smoke weed, recreationally, maybe on weekends, and then about half that smoke regularly.”

Schmiederer said it is difficult to rely on one person’s opinion when trying to characterize marijuana’s commonality because so many people have so many different perspectives.

“I think there are some students that think marijuana use is normal,” Schmiederer said. “I think there are just as many, if not more, students who think it’s something they might try but that they’re not going to continue to do, and I think there are some students — an equal number or more — who think it’s not something they want to do, becasue it’s illegal and they don’t want to be around it.”

Dennis Franks, director of campus safety and police, said he does not consider marijuana common on Elon’s campus, especially not in comparison to alcohol.

“Is marijuana here? Yes,” he said. “Do we see it all the time? No. So I struggle to say that it’s a common thing.”

Overall, marijuana’s prevalence at Elon is up for debate, but it is safe to say marijuana has a presence at Elon, much like it does at many other universities across the country. As under wraps as its presence may be, it is still quite visible on Elon’s campus.

Weighing the effects of marijuana on individuals, society

The debate regarding the benefits and consequences of legalizing marijuana has been going on for ages, but for the first time, more than 50 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. Earlier this month, a survey of 1,501 adults by the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press revealed  52 percent of Americans said the use of marijuana should be legal, while 45 percent said it should be illegal.

The issue is pertinent on the state level, where some state legislators are taking strides toward legalizing marijuana. Other legislators, like those in the state of North Carolina, have not budged on changing marijuana legislation. Progress on House Bill 84 — a bill proposed earlier this year to legalize medical marijuana — was stopped in late February shortly after it was proposed.

North Carolina Representative Kelly Alexander, who sponsored the bill, said H.B. 84 would have allowed physicians to prescribe medical cannabis to patients with painful lingering conditions in order to ease their pain.

“The bottom line is it can help sick people, specifically people who are suffering from chronic debilitating conditions,” Alexander said.

Alexander also said the bill may have remedied some of the problems with lack of research in the field by setting aside a portion of taxes for research on the effects of marijuana.

Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said the MPP was in support of H.B. 84. The MPP advocates for a taxation and regulation model of marijuana similar to the current model for alcohol.

“It’s not as much the benefits of legalizing marijuana as it is the negative consequences of prohibition that need to be rolled back,” Capecchi said. “People want to use marijuana. People are going to use marijuana despite criminal laws against it, so how are those people going to get marijuana? Currently, they’re going to the criminal market. They enrich the criminal market. There are no taxes that are captured on that, so any cost borne by the state for the effects of the use of marijuana, there’s nothing recaptured.”

While some outside the Elon community may be adamant about the legalization of marijuana, Schmiederer made it clear that even if marijuana becomes legal in North Carolina, students caught with the substance may still face an Honor Code violation. She said the university does not plan to alter its Honor Code, because the charge would still violate federal law.

“I think the challenge with marijuana from a philosophical perspective is that if marijuana was legalized, one of my concerns is still someone is selling it,” Schmiederer said, “And the individuals that are selling it don’t always have the best of intentions. When you invite people from the outside onto Elon’s campus or into our community, they bring other concerns with them. So if you’ve got a dealer, typically they have a lot of other issues and challenges. They’re not somebody we want in our community for the safety of everyone else.”

Freshman Danny Kirk said if marijuana had been legalized in North Carolina before he came to Elon, he might have chosen a different school.

“There were kids here celebrating when Colorado legalized marijuana because it was one step toward the rest of the states legalizing it,” he said. “So it might be more socially acceptable, but I still wouldn’t do it because of the health and mental risks.”

These health risks are plentiful, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. According to a fact sheet provided by NIDA, the adverse effects of marijuana can include increased heart rate, respiratory problems in frequent users, an altered psychological state, paranoia, anxiety and depression, among other symptoms.

“I don’t think it’s very healthy for anyone to do anything that alters who they are,” said freshman Ashley Halinski. “Anything that kind of messes with your mind or changes your personality or the way you think cannot be healthy for you. And people say how it’s not addictive, but I feel like it’s mentally addictive.”

Studies have shown marijuana can also be psychologically addictive. About 9 percent of users become addicted to marijuana, according to NIDA.

At the same time, many who argue for the legalization of medical marijuana say it can benefit those with cancer and other conditions such as AIDS and glaucoma. But because it is a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it is illegal to conduct large-scale marijuana studies, so there is very little literature on the subject. Some of the small amount of literature does address marijuana’s potential medical benefits.

A 2000 study in the Journal of Public Health reported in 1985 the FDA approved Marinol, a synthetic form of medical marijuana, for treatment of nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients who did not respond to conventional therapy. The FDA also approved its use as an appetite stimulant for those affected by AIDS in 1992, the study said.

Because of its listing as a Schedule I substance, few studies have been legally conducted on the benefits of medical marijuana. But as states continue to discuss whether marijuana should be legalized, the United States will likely obtain more insight into the risks and benefits of marijuana.

* Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the source.

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