There has been a surge of marijuana-related drug violations this semester, with the number of students arrested on the rise and resident evictions from campus housing already surpassing last semester’s total.
Even still, this recent development might not fully depict the prevalence of marijuana use by students at Sam Houston State University.
In a recent anonymous survey conducted by The Houstonian through an independent website, of 163 Bearkats, 58 percent of students reported using marijuana at least once in the past year, with 46 percent saying they have smoked at least once in the past 30 days.
Nearly 78 percent of the students who had reported smoking marijuana in the past year had continued their habit and reported smoking marijuana in the past 30 days.
In response to the survey results, Vice President of Student Services Frank Parker says he’s concerned but not shocked at the number of students smoking marijuana.
“My concern would mostly be how consistently students are using and whether or not they would stop,” Parker said. “You’ve got to know when to stop and do what’s the right thing.”
SHSU’s Residence Life office has terminated 24 housing contracts for drug-related violations this spring semester alone, compared to just 14 drug-related evictions for all of the fall 2015 semester, according to Wayne Bennett, Assistant Director for Student Discipline and Risk Management for Residence Life.
“This semester there’s been some situations where the number of people relating to one incident involved more than one or two people at a time,” Bennett said. “So this doesn’t mean there were 24 separate incidents, just that 24 residents were effected one way or another. There’s already been 10 more than last semester and we’re only a month in.”
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of marijuana-related violations with the number of related housing contract terminations increasing every year, along with a more flippant attitude toward smoking marijuana among campus residents, according to Joellen Tipton, Executive Director of Residence Life.
From her experience in meeting with students for their appeals over the last few years, Tipton said she has noticed a much more cavalier attitude about smoking marijuana from the residents who have had their housing contracts terminated.
According to Tipton, some students look at being arrested for marijuana as harmless, equivalent to a speeding ticket and shouldn’t be kicked out of the residence hall for an arrest.
“I say no, I’m not going to terminate your housing contract for a speeding ticket because we don’t have a policy against speeding, we have a policy against illegal substance abuse,” Tipton said.
Bennett agreed that there has been an increasing number of students with that cavalier attitude.
“I will get residents that don’t think it’s any big deal, but then there’s also some students that I see and [being evicted for a drug violation] is basically that life lesson that’s just been learned and they see it that way,” he said.
The recent growth in marijuana violations on campus housing is difficult to explain but it is not the result, according to Tipton, of a change in policy or enforcement of that policy.
“Our policies have been in effect for years…we haven’t changed the way we handle any kind of drug violation it’s not just marijuana, although marijuana seems to be the drug of choice,” Tipton said.
Both Bennett and Tipton agree that, despite the Residence Life office’s best efforts, many students are not fully aware of the zero tolerance drug policy.
“I think the majority of students, even though when they sign the housing contract they state that they will read it, they will not,” Bennett said. “Residents are briefed on the drug policy at orientation, they get it at the beginning of each semester even if they’ve been here in the fall and we repeat it in the spring. So we try and get the message out to them, plus they’ve agreed to read them on their own.”
Furthermore, violating the drug policy does not require the actual possession of an illegal drug.
“They may not actually have marijuana in their room or apartment, or on their person, but if they have paraphernalia it is still a violation of the policy just as much as if they had marijuana,” Tipton said.
According to Tipton, the student disciplinary hearing is not a legal process and those accused of violating the zero tolerance policy are not entitled to the same privileges.
“For a legal situation in a court of law, you have to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” Tipton said. “For an administrative hearing within the university, because it is not a legal proceeding at all, we have the choice [to take disciplinary action] and the burden of proof is put on the student to prove they are innocent.”
According to university policy, a student found to be in violation of Residence Life’s drug policy by possessing marijuana or drug paraphernalia, following a disciplinary hearing, will immediately have their housing contract terminated.
“Normally they’ll have 48 hours to move out of the residence halls. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, we’ll give them a couple of extra days,” Tipton said.
The rigor of SHSU’s zero tolerance drug policy finds its roots in a longstanding policy within the Student Code of Conduct. However, not every code in the Student Code of Conduct is written by SHSU administrators.
“The possession of illegal substances like marijuana is a violation of the code of student conduct and these basic violations of the Code of Student Conduct are written by the Texas State University System,” Parker said. “When you see the Code of Conduct in the student handbook, it is just a reprint from the system’s rules and regulations, which basically comes out and governs each particular university, and you can write additional things into your code of student conduct, but the basic fundamentals are there.”
Parker said that the 14 years he was in charge of student discipline at SHSU was an era of zero tolerance across state universities in Texas, keeping in line with a wave of harsher penalties for drug violations issued by Texas lawmakers in the late 1980’s.
“That policy said that any student found to be in the illegal possession of a controlled substance would be suspended for the semester in which the infraction occurred and the following semester, and basically it was a zero tolerance policy,” he said.
Thus, while lawmakers have since retracted some of the more severe punishments for simple drug possessions, SHSU’s zero tolerance policy has remained largely unchanged.
“The legislators eased up the zero tolerance, but it is still somewhat considered an intolerable act,” Parker said. “So the whole time I was in the Dean of Students, it was zero tolerance. So regardless of what happened, if that student was found in possession they were suspended.”
Now, according to Parker, the Dean of Students Office takes the seriousness of the offense into consideration when issuing out disciplinary sanctions against a student found to be in possession of marijuana.
“You know, if you’ve got a joint it’s something different than if you’ve got a pound of marijuana,” he said, adding that it’s not reasonable to suspend a student unless they had a “usable amount.”
Student Body President Phill Lund said that however unpopular the drug policy might be, it is out of the direct control of SHSU officials.
“They want to be angry with the university…but it’s not the university’s fault though, they’re just doing what they’re being told to do by the Texas State University System,” Lund said.
SHSU’s zero tolerance drug policy includes student violations that are committed off campus property, and the violations are handled no differently than if the student had committed the drug violation on campus, according to Bennett and Parker.
Residence Life’s zero tolerance policy for drug abuse, a dogma intended to provide for a healthy and safe environment for student residents, extends to include marijuana offenses made off campus grounds, according to Bennett.
“Well I think if you have a student who is partaking in the use of illegal drugs, whether it’s on or off campus, they’re still a part of the community on campus,” he said. “Our idea is that we want to remove that possible influence on other students who are living in that community.”
When asked whether administrators should be getting involved with students’ affairs off campus, Lund said it should be expected that students are held to a certain standard of conduct.
“It all comes down to, and how I believe the way the university handles it, is that a students’ actions are a reflection of the university,” Lund said. “They’re a Bearkat and Sam has values and principles that they want Bearkats to live by, which we all agree to live by when we started coming here.”
The University Police Department is largely responsible for holding students accountable for their actions off campus, according to Chief Deputy Trey Holloway.
“If UPD finds somebody smoking weed off campus, yes, we report it to the Dean of Students…the Dean of Students Office gets all drug offenses committed by students and treats them all the same,” Colloway said. “If it’s a student, the school is notified every time.”
It is the responsibility of every student, Calloway said, to be aware of all possible consequences they might receive for their actions, including those actions made off campus.
“One of the first things [the student handbook] says is that it doesn’t matter where the offense is or where you are, you’re still a student of this university,” he said.
Whether prosecutors handle cases of marijuana possession as swiftly and severly as university officials is a different story.
Calloway believes it may be difficult for many prosecutors’ offices to handle marijuana-related offenses for small amounts due to the large volume of cases.
“I personally think that most prosecutors are so overwhelmed, they don’t have the money or personnel to actually go out and prosecute all of these,” Colloway said.
He added that no matter what, if you’re caught with a usable amount of marijuana, UPD will be making an arrest every time.
Parker acknowledges there might be some disparity between the way university and government officials handle marijuana possession cases.
“From a philosophical basis, when you think about it the community and the state are saying this is a misdemeanor, but then you’re at school and you get the equivalent of the death penalty for a semester when you are suspended from school,” Parker said. “I’m not real sure that in a perfect world, that’s appropriate. But by the same token, I had no issue with the policy and I make that very clear. Don’t make any bones about it, if you got caught with marijuana and I was the one handling your case, you were going home.”
In the first month of 2016, the University Police Department reported 12 cases involving arrests for the Possession of Marijuana, compared with 38 for all of 2015, according to UPD’s daily crime log.
Last year, UPD made 19 arrests for drug abuse violations on campus housing and have already made nine similar arrests last month alone, according to SHSU’s main campus crime statistics.
As to a possible explanation for the increase in arrest for possession of marijuana, Colloway said one factor could be increased activity by the officers.
Colloway said he has also noticed that more and more people are actually calling in and reporting marijuana use, which could be another possible explanation for the increase in arrests.
“A lot of it is just the odor, everybody knows what it is nowadays,” Colloway said. “A lot people are calling it in because they don’t want it around.”
Colloway said this leads him to believe that smoking marijuana is not as widely accepted as it’s perceived to be. UPD policy hasn’t changed regarding drug possession.
“[UPD hasn’t] changed anything, none of our procedures, none of our focus has changed; we’re all operating the same as before,” Colloway said.