States Are Fighting for Medical Marijuana Access in Schools

With a wave of new cannabis legislation sweeping the United States, the next thought on legislators' minds seems to be children and schools.

Paediatrician using stethoscope on girl iStock / fizkes

California Governor Gavin Newsom approved a measure in October that allows individual school districts to vote to adopt provisions allowing medical marijuana to be administered on school grounds by a parent or guardian. The medical marijuana cannot be in a form where it is smoked or vaped. The law is known as JoJo’s Act, named after a teenager who suffers from epileptic seizures, which she treats with cannabis oil. That makes California the newest of eleven total states to have laws touching on medical marijuana products being permissible on school grounds.

Right now in California, children with parental permission are able to partake in cannabis through the Medical Marijuana Program. That is because medical marijuana typically has only negligible amounts of Tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC), the chemical component that gives people the feeling of “being high.” Most medical cannabis instead has a higher combination of cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD.

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“CBD and THC have many of the same medical benefits and there is evidence that they can relieve some of the same symptoms, including inflammation, nausea related to chemotherapy, and stimulate the appetite of those with cancer or AIDS,” the study explains.

Meanwhile, the California state School Board Association is studying how already-existing medical and recreational marijuana affects children in grades K-12. The long-term study sweeps through decades of past laws as well, starting with the Compassionate Use Act passed in 1996. However, since marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, the research done on the drug has been extremely limited, since much of it is restricted.

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In 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would allow parents to bring medical marijuana products to school campus to give to their children. That was the same year California began licensing recreational cannabis businesses. The California Police Chiefs Association still opposes the new law, saying allowing drugs on campus jeopardizes the safety of other students.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still warns against children and adolescent use of marijuana, despite saying 38% of high school students report having used the drug at some point. The CDC says cannabis can have long-term negative effects on developing brains; human brains are not fully developed until the mid-20s. Those effects can include difficulty thinking and problem-solving; difficulty with memory and learning; impaired coordination; and difficulty focusing and maintaining attention. The U.S. government reports students who smoke marijuana are more likely to drop out of school than those who do not. The CDC also says 1 in 6 teens who repeatedly use cannabis become addicted, “which means that they may make unsuccessful efforts to quit using marijuana or may give up important activities with friends and family in favor of using marijuana.”

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Here’s the issue with most schools in the United States right now: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows school staff to administer prescription drugs and even mandates that schools must provide accommodations for children to be able to attend school without issue despite a disability. However, marijuana is still classified under the U.S. federal government as a Schedule I drug – on par with heroin and methamphetamines. Those two laws interfere, so right now, people across the nation are still struggling with school boards to allow children to be given their prescribed medical marijuana during the school day.

Several other states have already made the switch to allow students with the necessary paperwork to have their medical marijuana on campus. In Colorado, for instance, a law signed in 2018 allows school nurses to give non-smokable medical marijuana to children whose prescription requires the drug be administered during the day. In 2019, another bill added autism to the list of disabling medical conditions that can be treated through prescribed medical marijuana at school. Colorado’s new law is far more lenient than California’s, in that school nurses and primary caregivers can give students their medicinal marijuana, rather than parents and legal guardians alone.

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However, the Colorado General Assembly added a note to the bill, saying if a school loses federal funding as a result of the law, the school does not have to comply with it, so long as it posts that decision to not comply on its website. A federal funding cut could mean a blow to the money used for breakfast and lunches served to low-income students at school, which is provided only if the school is found complying with a “drug-free-zone” policy.

The National School Board explained in a legal guide, “State courts have started to address the interaction of state and federal law regarding marijuana use. Some have ruled that medical marijuana laws do not conflict with federal law because they merely carve out a narrow exemption to criminal prosecution under state law, leaving federal authorities to prosecute at their discretion.”

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Even in areas where medicinal marijuana is legal, the law still prohibits its consumption in public, which means school grounds and school buses remain off-limits. Certain states have worked around that. On top of Colorado, states like Delaware, Illinois, and New Jersey allow non-smokable medicinal marijuana products on school grounds, but a parent must be the one to administer the treatment, just as the new law in California states. And in Florida, Maine, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington, and West Virginia, cannabis products are allowed on school property, but only under very strict and specific parameters.

All of these policies specify that a parent or guardian, or caregiver such as a school nurse must be the one to possess, store, and administer the medical marijuana on school property. The child cannot carry or use it without that adult. And, of course, state medical marijuana laws do not allow students to distribute marijuana on school property – or off it, for that matter. Additionally, caregivers and school personnel are not required to administer the medical marijuana if that individual is not comfortable doing so.

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