By Melissa Schill
Although recreational marijuana will be legal for adults in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020, it will not be permitted on Wheaton’s campus, following the same restrictions as the no-alcohol policy.
In preparation for the new law, the student handbook was updated for the current academic year with the following statement: “The College also prohibits the recreational use of marijuana in states where it has become legalized.” Violating this policy will result in suspension or expulsion, or, if the violating student is under 21, referral to prosecution.
Many Wheaton students have questioned the Community Covenant’s stance on alcohol over the years, and the administration anticipates a similar response to the marijuana ban. Their reasoning for banning the substance is the same as for alcohol. According to Dean of Residence Life Justin Heth, the consequences of substance abuse — including the loss of control while under the influence, long term medical complications and addiction — jeopardize the integrity and community of the campus.
“Although the social stigma [around recreational marijuana] may lessen and edibles sound fun and exciting, there are going to be some consequences that we’re going to have to face,” Heth said. “Wheaton is making the choice to not have that drug be part of our community.”
Heth isn’t alone in his concern. Psychology Professor William Struthers teaches an advanced integrative seminar called “Drugs, Religion and Society” and is an expert in psychopharmacology, which ScienceDaily defines as “drug-induced changes in mood, thinking and behavior.” He said that the consequences of recreational marijuana have not been communicated well in America.
“There is a gray area in the culture right now,” said Struthers. “The benefits have been oversold; people think that the benefits of cannabis are broader than they actually are.”
Struthers also opposes the use of recreational marijuana for spiritual reasons. “If you hold a free-wheeling, do-what-you-want with your body approach, I have a hard time reconciling that with the direct teachings of scripture,” he said. “Why are we seeking the relief and the release and the high and the transcendence?”
The two main chemical compounds in marijuana are CBD and THC. CBD is useful for medicinal purposes and can help treat migraines, seizures and various mental disorders. THC is used for its hallucinogenic effects. Recreational marijuana producers often modify their plants to be higher in THC, which creates a more pleasurable experience for their customers.
Recent research has shown that cannabis, especially the presence of THC, has negative impacts on the cognitive development of young adults and their growing brains.
“I’m concerned that people might engage in marijuana like they do with the flippancy of alcohol and not recognize that they’re actually damaging themselves long term,” Heth said. Studies have shown that many young people believe that recreational marijuana is a healthier alternative to drinking or smoking.
“I had a group of friends in high school where pretty much all of us were smoking weed pretty regularly,” junior Caleb Ballard said. “A big part of my story, how I came to Christ, was me having super negative experiences with weed where I did experience a lot of damage as a developing teenage guy.”
Ballard is from Colorado where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012. Despite having some negative experiences with it himself, he argued that legalizing recreational marijuana is mostly a positive thing. He explained that his school system received some of the revenue generated by marijuana. “The school system benefited a lot, which it needed.”
In Illinois, one of the main arguments around legalization was centered on its potential for revenue generation. Last May, governor J.B. Pritzker tweeted, “This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance.”
Another push for its legalization came from incarceration statistics for marijuana-related crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2017 46.9 percent of incarcerated individuals arrested for drug law violations were Black.
“I think there are a lot of people who are wrongfully incarcerated on very small charges related to marijuana. It has kept a lot of specifically minority communities much more heavily involved in mass incarceration,” Ballard said.
Junior Sarah McNeill echoed Ballard: “[Drug-related incarceration] vastly disproportionately affects people of color in America. I think legalization is a step toward a more racially just legal system.”
In October, DuPage County board members voted to opt out of recreational marijuana sales. According to The Naperville Sun, Republican board member Tim Eliot, who opposes the new statewide law, questioned the legalization and pushed for DuPage county to opt out. “If you really believe that legalization is not going to result in greater accessibility and greater illicit use for underage users, please come see me because I have a bridge to sell you,” he said. “These public health issues are going to happen … and yet we’re considering becoming part of this. Why?”
Medical cannabis was legalized in Illinois in 2013. The legalization of recreational marijuana was introduced in early 2017 and the legislation was signed on June 25, 2019. Illinois is among ten other states where recreational marijuana is legal. Illinois residents over the age of 21 will be able to purchase limited amounts of cannabis from licensed marijuana dispensaries. Individual counties can ban cannabis businesses but cannot prohibit individual possession.
According to Heth, Wheaton’s decision to uphold its marijuana policy after the substance is legalized in 2020 is essential to the school’s growth as a community. “In a way, “ he said, “we are asking students to fast from these substances for eight months and invest in a community that is bigger than an individual.”