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For half of my life, I have lived in a state where weed is legal.
I am from cannabis Colorado. I was 11 years old when voters — much to the chagrin of then-Governor John W. Hickenlooper (who has now dramatically changed his stance as senator) — approved Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana. I watched as dispensary after dispensary popped up along the streets of Denver while stigmas fell and weed lifted our state economy.
Now, more than a decade later, 38 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, while 24 states, two territories, and D.C. have also legalized recreational use. In 2020, the National Institutes of Health reported the “highest levels of marijuana use recorded since the 1980s” among college students. Clearly, our levels of usage aren’t the only thing that’s getting high.
At Harvard, we’re no different: Students use cannabis.
Whether to spice up social gatherings, ease anxiety, brainstorm their column for The Crimson, or to simply get a little stoned, there is no doubt that even at our pristine Ivy League institution, students (and I would venture to guess professors!), enjoy the devil’s lettuce.
But even in our state of Massachusetts, where recreational use is legal and dispensaries can be found a mere four-minute walk away from campus housing, Harvard, following federal policy, deems the herb illegal on campus property. Uniquely, ninety-eight percent of undergraduates at Harvard live on campus, making nearly all possession by students ‘illicit.’
Something is amiss. It seems there’s a critical contradiction in our smoky status quo.
On one hand, we are entering a new era of cannabis culture in Cambridge. This summer, Harvard Square celebrated as Western Front became the first dispensary to open in the neighborhood. Just last week, Herbwell Cannabis opened down the street from the Quad. Diaspora — a private cannabis club launched by a co-founder of Yamba Market, Cambridge’s pioneer dispensary — hosts consumption events in the former John Harvard Brewery space. Cambridge’s legal weed scene is only just beginning to blossom.
On the other, marijuana, federally recognized as a Schedule I controlled substance, sits out of place alongside a wide array of drugs ranging from heroin to psilocybin to bath salts, which are federally prohibited and described as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
As a recipient of federal funding and thus a complying participant in the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, Harvard, too, must completely ban the substance.
That means that students over twenty-one can walk out of their dormitory, walk down the block, and walk out of a dispensary having legally purchased anything from an ounce of flower to a baggie of edibles to a cartridge of vape-able concentrate. They can then return, and on paper, be warned, sent to the Administrative Board, placed on probation, or required to withdraw. This is not necessarily for smoking in a dormitory (prohibited regardless of substance), but rather for simple possession in their own place of residence.
Meanwhile, alcohol — which often facilitates students (especially freshmen) leaving our campus in ambulances due to overdrinking, and is responsible for more than 1,500 U.S. college student deaths annually — evades the scheduling list altogether. Outside of the “dry” freshman Yard, students over twenty-one can legally possess and consume it on Harvard’s campus.
I spoke with the Harvard Economics department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies and resident libertarian, Jeffrey A. Miron — who has written extensively on drug prohibition and legalization — about the complex dynamics at play.
In our conversation, he mentioned the seemingly-unavoidable campus cannabis conflict between “widespread violation” through on-campus possession and the ever-present threat of punishment.
“Harvard is left in an impossible position,” Miron said. “On the one hand, it might not want to be hypocritical and make a big deal out of this, because it knows it’s gonna go on.”
However, he continued, Harvard doesn’t want to be perceived “as ignoring an existing federal law because that might jeopardize its treatment under other federal policies and so on.”
The wide variety of THC products available further complicates things. While the buds of marijuana flower release a telltale odor, products like edibles or vape cartridges are far more inconspicuous. One freshman who uses cannabis regularly told me that he likes to use THC vape cartridges because of their discreet nature and lack of smell.
To enforce their prohibition policies seriously and equally across cannabis products, Harvard would have to engage in unrealistic, widespread dormitory searches and over-policing that would deeply encroach on student privacy. Short of that, people possessing physical flower, with its more noticeable stench, are bound to receive the short end of the stick for the same ‘offense.’
Miron’s solution to our cannabis conundrum unsurprisingly mirrored his libertarian, “legalize all drugs” leanings: “There’s only one sensible solution, which is repeal the Drug-Free Schools Act and move marijuana out of the current Controlled Substances Act.”
I unequivocally agreed with the latter step, but I hesitated with the complete repeal of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. Isn’t that a bit extreme?
Something Miron said earlier in our interview, however, helped me understand his position.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to see what different universities might do and how they would handle it and which policies would have better or worse effects overall, because the federal policy has dictated that every school automatically just assumes that all these substances are banned on campus,” he told me.
Without their compulsory loyalty to federal policy, perhaps Harvard and others could craft less inconsistent, more equitable sets of reefer regulations. But I’m still skeptical — both that federal policy is soon to change, and that Harvard would otherwise risk being a trendsetter in defiance of federal law.
Regardless, too myopic of a focus on federal policies might fail to recognize where the power to punish (or to look away) lies in our status quo. In Harvard’s housing, by virtue of who lives and works where, getting caught by faculty certainly seems more likely than getting arrested by HUPD.
I asked Miron how he would handle cannabis as an undergraduate House dean. While he wouldn’t answer directly, he offered some critical insight into what he called “benign neglect.”
“My suspicion is that there are faculty deans occasionally, resident deans more often, tutors all the time, who are actually witnessing this happen,” Miron said. “And I haven’t heard about zillions of Ad Board cases over students who are punished, so my guess is that there’s a lot of looking the other way.”
Those who look the other way are doing what Harvard as an institution seems incapable of doing. They are protecting students from unfair policies and ridiculous retribution. On our campus, this should be the norm. No student should be penalized for possessing or consuming a product that is legal one step beyond the University’s gates.
At the bare minimum, we need federal cannabis de-scheduling and decriminalization yesterday. A potential downgrade to Schedule III is a step in the right direction, but still leaves gaping inconsistencies from the federal government for colleges like ours to deal with, notwithstanding that it enables prohibition (and thus unjust, unequal incarceration for weed) to continue in over half of the United States.
In the meantime, more dispensaries will likely continue to open in Cambridge, just as I watched in Denver. With the normalization of legal pot purchase, stigma on campus will fade further into the haze. The presence and use of ‘illicit’ cannabis in Harvard dorms will only grow as purchasing pot becomes easier and easier, safer and safer.
Amid the federal government’s ganja inaction, and thus the College’s coerced cannabis chastity, the responsibility will regrettably fall on those with the power to penalize.
So, tutors, proctors, deans, tattletale peers, even HUPD officers, if you see something or smell something, choose not to say something.
Let them consume.
Matthew E. Nekritz ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies Concentrator in Cabot House. His column, “The Things We Consume,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.
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