By D.R. Bartlette
Since its founding five years ago, the University of Arkansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML, has been working toward its goal of decriminalizing marijuana. In the last year, UA NORML has stepped up its efforts – and has faced some strong opposition.
Last fall, NORML members spearheaded the successful passage of Eureka Springs’ “low priority” ordinance, which states that the city will treat marijuana violations as the lowest priority for law enforcement.
Last month, the group put forth a resolution to the UA student government called the SAFER resolution, or Safe Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation, after a pro-legalization group begun in Colorado. The resolution would have made penalties for campus marijuana violations no more severe than those for alcohol.
In an e-mail interview, founding member and unofficial spokesperson Ryan Denham said, “We simply want the university to treat student marijuana use – and suspected marijuana use – the same as it treats alcohol use. Anything short of such a policy is surely sending the message to students that they are better off drinking than using marijuana, which is intellectually dishonest and quite dangerous.”
The resolution was defeated, but the group remains undeterred.
“We’re starting a campus referendum in the fall,” Denham said. “We’re going to start collecting signatures on the first day of classes.”
Members of the group were optimistic that they will be able to collect enough signatures to place the SAFER resolution on the ballot for a student-wide vote, since UA students just approved an initiative lowering the number of signatures required.
However, success at the UA ballot box is only the next step.
“Just because an initiative is passed by the student body, it’s not necessarily going to go into effect,” said Dayna Wolek, advisor for student government. “It must be approved by Chancellor White.”
Turning up the heat
According to Denham, these activities have attracted “a heightened degree of heat” to the group’s members.
The first incident involves the group’s then-vice president, Charles McClure. According to an e-mail correspondence from McClure, on Feb. 7, he returned to his dorm room to find two UAPD officers, his roommate and the resident assistant (R.A.). McClure said in his e-mail that he denied the presence of any marijuana in his room, but that one of the officers seemed to believe otherwise. The officer asked permission to search the room and McClure consented. The search yielded no evidence, no arrests were made and the officers politely left the room, according to McClure. In his e-mail, he said that he thought that was the end of it, since the officers found no evidence with which to convict him.
Ten days later, according to McClure’s e-mail, he was “accosted” by three UAPD officers and two R.A.s outside his room. “I was immediately apprehended, questioned and searched forcefully by two separate officers.” In his e-mail, he said he was accused of being under the influence of marijuana, which he denied. He said that no diagnostic tests were performed to confirm or deny the accusation.
He further said that he did not permit the officers to enter the room and became engaged in a “heated debate” with the officers over the reasons why. According to McClure’s e-mail, one of the officers, Sgt. Benjamin Velasco, accused him of possessing marijuana. “Velasco was most definitely harassing me in an attempt to get me to incriminate myself, but I’m used to cops trying to scare me, so I brushed it off nicely,” McClure said in his e-mail.
McClure stated in an interview with the UA campus newspaper, The Traveler, that at his pre-hearing interview with the UA judicial board, he was informed that the police had searched his room before his arrival and found a baggie with an un-weighable amount of marijuana residue inside a sock. McClure was then charged with possession of marijuana and being under the influence and went before the All University Judiciary on April 11 – coincidentally, the day after the SAFER resolution was voted down by the student government. He was found to be in violation of the university’s student code of conduct, though the baggie was never entered as evidence.
McClure was sentenced to one year of academic probation (which meant that he could no longer serve as an officer of NORML), 30 hours of community service, mandatory enrollment in a marijuana student assistance program and orders to switch dormitories.
“They actually did move me into a nicer dorm – one where you can drink alcohol (if you’re of legal age),” McClure said.
Apparently, that was not the end of the story. “Now they’re getting me again,” McClure said.
McClure said he was recently notified that he was “getting in more trouble” because the AUJ has now charged him with “failure to complete sanctions in a timely manner,” though McClure said that he was never given a deadline for any of his sentencing except when to move out of the dorm. He said he assumed he had until the end of the semester. As of this writing, he did not know what, if any, further punishment he would be subject to because of the new charge.
“I am absolutely disgusted and appalled at the hypocrisy of the UA administration, and I am getting the hell out of this town as soon as I can afford it,” McClure said.
The second incident involved another active NORML member, a 20-year old female who did not want her name used. According to Denham, the same R.A. who called the UAPD on McClure also called them on the female student. One of the responding officers was, again, Velasco. A search of the student’s room turned up no evidence. The student said that she was charged with possession on no other grounds than her room “smelled like marijuana.”
Velasco said in an e-mail correspondence that he has no recollection of any of these events.
Denham said the actions on the part of the UA are extreme.
“The university’s extreme and unwarranted actions against Charlie [McClure] and this young woman are not only unjust, but they truly highlight the hypocrisy taking place on campus when it comes to student substance use,” Denham said. “It [the UA] allows frats to fence off their property with crude temporary structures so that they can illegally binge drink and have parties with underage students. Yet, when a student is simply suspected of marijuana use, they are deemed guilty and punished.”
UA NORML President Jordan Dickerson agrees.
“If they [the UA] actually started enforcing alcohol violations to the level of marijuana violations, there would be such an outcry,” Dickerson said. “They would have to revoke the charter of the Greek organizations.”
Wes Greer, president of the Interfraternity Council, said that the fences are put up to allow the fraternities to enjoy outdoor concerts and to comply with rules that only allow one entrance and exit to the property.
“There were no arrests to my knowledge regarding underage drinking during our row week events,” Greer said. “As a council, we have stepped up our risk management efforts regarding social events. According to the UAPD and the university, this was the best IFC row week in the history of the event.”
The most recent campus crime report shows that there were more arrests and referrals to the AUJ for campus alcohol violations than for campus drug violations.
“We have sought the advice of the national ACLU, the Arkansas ACLU and some local attorneys on this issue, but haven’t found much because these are university rules and not laws we’re dealing with,” Denham said.
In fact, the AUJ is an extralegal department of the UA that has no connection with any local judicial branches.
“This is not criminal, it’s educational,” said Monica Holland, director for the Office of Community Standards and Student Ethics.
At an AUJ hearing, students have many of the same rights as defendants in a criminal court of law, including the right to due process, the right to have an advisor present, the right to see all the evidence which will be presented against them and others.
However, there are some significant differences between a court of law and the AUJ. The AUJ can determine what can and can’t be submitted as evidence, and the burden of proof lies with the accused. Those who stand accused do not have the right to be represented by an attorney, but rather, the student may have an advisor present, who can be anyone the student chooses – from a trusted friend to an attorney, if the student can afford one. The advisor may advise the student, but may not speak for the student at the hearing.
Despite the difficulties McClure and the female student have faced, both continue to be active in UA NORML.
“I am still active in NORML because I have every right to be and because I am royally pissed off at drug prohibition,” McClure said. “I am tired of being made a criminal.”
McClure said that after his probation is over, he plans to transfer to a college in North Carolina. “I do not feel safe on this campus. I’ve made powerful enemies here.”