Rider loosens punishments for first-time marijuana offenders

By Stephen Neukam

As national and state attitudes toward marijuana change, Rider has loosened punishments for first-time offenders while attempting to balance national regulations and increasing leniency in New Jersey, a difficult juggling act as the substance increases in popularity.

The evolving legal situation has coincided with a marked increase in drug arrests at the university, with over 130 arrests between 2013 and 2019.

The dissonance between state rules and federal statutes has proved difficult for students who live in a state where marijuana is legal but go to a university where the substance is prohibited, leading to increased possession, arrests and disciplinary actions.

All about the funding

Rider is limited in what it can do to adjust to the Garden State, which legalized recreational marijuana use for adults in February. Since the university relies on federal funding, it must be following federal law, where marijuana is illegal, said Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown.

“The recent change in New Jersey law will not change how the University enforces our drug policy in the Student Code of Social Conduct,” said Brown. “Marijuana still is illegal at the federal level, and we are required to have and enforce a stated policy prohibiting marijuana on campus.”

While the university has maintained a no-tolerance policy toward marijuana, it has worked to reduce the penalties for first-time offenses for students aged 21 and over. Rider’s invariable punishment for possession used to be loss of housing. Two to three years ago, the university refined those rules to bring first-time offenses more in line with alcohol violations, according to Brown.

“We opened the range of consequences at that time in order to not make it mandatory for a first offense for possession/use of a small quantity of marijuana to result in a loss of housing,” said Brown. “Currently, our sanctions for a student found to be in possession/using a small quantity of marijuana are consistent with sanctions for our alcohol policy.”

Senior musical theater major and Student Government Association President Dylan Erdelyi said he agrees with the university’s decision to lessen first-time punishments for a small amount of marijuana possession.

“As a University, we have a responsibility to care for our community and make sure all our students are safe,” said Erdelyi. “That said, I do think the lessened penalties are a positive step. Marijuana still isn’t legal under the age of 21 — but I do not think that a misstep in college should lead to lifelong consequences.”

Public Safety enforcement

Rider Public Safety has not been forthcoming in how the recent New Jersey legislation will affect its oversight efforts.

When asked how Public Safety is adjusting its practices to the new law and if it presents any new challenges, Director James Waldon only said, “Rider’s policy on marijuana has been adopted in compliance with federal law, and the University’s obligations as a recipient of federal funding.”

However, the new law has changed how local law enforcement responds to calls about marijuana.

The possession of six ounces or less of marijuana is no longer considered a crime, and law enforcement is no longer allowed to search a person because of odor alone.

Waldon did not respond to questions about why arrest numbers at the university in recent years have been on the rise.

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