Every year, Purdue Police Chief John Cox gets up on stage to speak to incoming freshmen during Boiler Gold Rush.
Last year, he says, he had to add a new message.
“For the very first time, one of the things I said was, ‘And don’t forget that marijuana is still illegal in the state of Indiana, no matter where you come from,’” Cox said recently.
This additional advice was necessary because neighboring states have recently legalized marijuana.
In 2018, marijuana became legal for recreational use in Michigan. In 2020, marijuana became legal in Illinois.
But, Cox said, it doesn’t matter if you come from a state where marijuana is legal. Once you cross the border into Indiana, it is illegal and can have serious consequences.
The legalization of marijuana is an increasingly divisive topic for the U.S. as more states begin to approve legalization, but polls show growing support for legalization. The perspective of legal professionals such as police officers and lawyers provides a different side.
When police become involved
There has to be a specific complaint for police to show up at your door, considering they do not wander the halls of residences.
“For something like marijuana, entire floormates know,” said PUPD Capt. Song Kang. “You can try to do all kinds of tricks, but you can’t mask that smell, especially when you start smoking inside of the residence halls.”
Kang said the majority of the time when students are caught, they are polite and comply with the officers. Their cooperation is noted in police reports.
Students first caught with marijuana on campus are more likely to receive a citation, Kang said. A citation is an arrest, without physically having to go to jail. When you are cited, you are given a court date and are required to show up.
Whether a student is merely cited or actually handcuffed and taken to jail depends on prior convictions, the amount of marijuana present, the cooperation of the student and police discretion, Kang said.
Drug statistics around Purdue
Marijuana is the most common drug on Purdue’s campus, Kang said.
But according to numbers police provided, arrests for possession of marijuana have decreased since 2017. In 2017, almost 200 citations were given for possession. That number dropped by more than two-thirds in 2019.
Purdue police cited no specific reason for the significant drop, although they don’t necessarily think it’s due to decreased usage.
Kang and Cox both noted that in 2017, fewer officers were on duty than there are now. During this time, officers were told to write a citation for each case and move on to the next case quickly. Now, Purdue has more officers, which allows them to weigh more carefully at the scene whether a citation should be issued, they said.
Is marijuana a gateway drug?
According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede the use of other substances.
West Lafayette Police Lt. Jon Eager said that he personally thinks marijuana is a gateway drug.
Eager likes to tell students about a time he was sitting in a courtroom after a guy had just been sentenced to several decades in prison for dealing heroin. The next case on the docket was a guy who had been trafficking marijuana.
“This man’s attorney said, ‘It’s just marijuana.’ The guy who had been charged for heroin was still sitting in the back of the courtroom at the time when the judge stopped him and asked him, ‘Sir, what was the first drug you used?’” Eager said. “The man said, ‘Marijuana.’ The judge asked, ‘Do you think that led you to where you are today?’ The man said, ‘Yeah.’”
Cox also believes marijuana is a gateway drug.
“Can you put stuff in alcohol? Yeah, sure you can. But we see so many things laced in marijuana that I would say, in my 31 years in this business, marijuana is more dangerous as a gateway drug than alcohol is,” Cox said.
Considerations of legalization
It is important to weigh the societal costs, Eager said. Many people argue that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, but what is important here is to focus on the percentage of people who are using alcohol versus marijuana.
“There haven’t been as many instances (of dangerous outcomes) with marijuana use, but what percentage of the population obeys the law and doesn’t use it?” Eager asked.
Marijuana affects your timing and your ability to judge distance, which are two key factors for operating a vehicle, he said. But the issue of marijuana and crashes has not been studied as much as the issue of alcohol and crashes. This means it’s difficult to tell how it will affect drivers, which makes it more dangerous, he said.
Capt. Arthur Choate of the West Lafayette Police Department said it is important to examine the sort of marijuana that people are using now, which could be purely THC.
“There are so many factors that go into it,” he said. “But there is enough empirical evidence that (marijuana) causes impairment, issues or problems.”
Legal services for students
Purdue provides some services to students caught in these dilemmas.
Purdue Student Legal Services Director Leslie Charters said that although she is unable to represent anyone in court, she is available to guide students through the process and to help students understand their best options.
Charters said about 30% of the cases she helps with on campus are criminal. Of that 30%, about half are marijuana cases.
Students can find Charters’ information on purdue.edu/sls, where there is a form to request an appointment. From there, she will contact you to set up a meeting.
Meetings are designed to help with facts of the case, how a prosecutor processes a case, what evidence there is and how to follow through with a court date.