Letter to the Editor: An Open Letter to the Office of Residential Life


To whom it may concern:

I am writing you, the Office of Residential Life, to propose changes to your marijuana protocol for resident assistants at UConn.

I am a new transfer student this semester at Storrs. I moved in to Garrigus Suites on Monday the 21st, and my first night at 10:30 pm, I wound up making an appearance in the report of UConn Police Department Incident 19-00005079; it’s never too early to get involved in campus life. Two armed police officers were called to my room after a resident assistant making 10:00 pm rounds smelled marijuana nearby in the hallway. Astonished that the RA staff had called the police on me my first day without having introduced themselves, and bewildered that a resident assistant would involve law enforcement over a potential minor substance use matter, I figured I must be the victim of some kind of Res Life initiation hazing. In response, I sent an RA on my floor a decidedly pointed email which landed me a meeting on the 24th with Garrigus Suites Hall Director Ashley Gravina. In retrospect, I feel like both of us showed up to the meeting expecting an apology from one another, but that was not to happen. That said, Ashley was very helpful in showing me the marijuana directive printed in the resident assistant Handbook and explaining the standard procedures established by your Office of Residential Life. However, three points that Ashley made to me demonstrate that your office’s marijuana protocol for RAs is conceptually flawed, unlawful, and unnecessary.

To paraphrase what Ashley said:

1. Resident assistants are directed not to knock on the doors of residents suspected of smoking marijuana out of concern for their own safety. 2. Although marijuana use and possession under a half ounce has been

decriminalized in Connecticut, UConn is a partially federally-funded University and must therefore defer to federal law with regard to controlled substances. 3. Every University Ashley has worked at before has a similar protocol that involves

calling the police, and she can’t imagine that any other college or university would not direct resident assistants to follow the same procedure.

I take issue with each of these statements.

First is the baseless supposition that resident assistants are somehow in greater danger knocking on doors that smell like marijuana than doors that do not. As Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post found in his 2016 economic policy article, there is not sufficient evidence to back up UConn’s claim that residents under the influence of marijuana are a greater threat to RAs than sober residents:

Public health researchers generally agree that on balance, marijuana is a less harmful drug than alcohol… But surprisingly, research on the link between marijuana and aggression has been mixed… a recent study from the

Netherlands, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, attempts to put this question to bed using the gold standard of scientific research: a random controlled trial… They recruited a group of 20 heavy alcohol users, 21 heavy marijuana users, and 20 controls who didn’t use either drug heavily at all… they made all three groups complete a number of tests designed to get people riled up… The researchers measured aggression, before and after the respondents took the test… For good measure, they had the marijuana and alcohol users go through the whole thing again one week later, this time without getting high or drunk, as a kind of separate control… “The results in the present study support the hypothesis that acute alcohol intoxication increases feelings of aggression and that acute cannabis intoxication reduces feelings of aggression,” the researchers conclude. This is in line with other research. A study in 2014, for instance, found that marijuana use among couples was linked to lower rates of domestic violence. (Ingraham).

Aside from impugning the supposed link between marijuana use and aggression that your Office of Residential Life seems to have bought into, Ingraham’s report also brings up another safety consideration that your office seems to have completely ignored: that of the residents suspected of smoking. Reports of violent behavior committed by marijuana users are, as Ingraham states, usually caused by some users’ marijuana- related side effects, “anxiety and paranoia, conditions which can occasionally manifest themselves in violent ways.” You want to know how to make a stoner anxious or paranoid? Send armed police officers to go bang on their door. Furthermore, suspected residents of color, sober or under the influence, may be placed in even greater danger having to face officers of a majority-white police department responding to a drug call. A case like mine, in which the resident assistant doesn’t know the resident in question, and the white police officers only know which door number to find, is a recipe for disaster. This past June, two campus police officers at Portland State University fatally shot Jason Washington, who was black, while he was attempting to break up a fight. This kind of incident demonstrates that racially-motivated police shootings can happen at the hands of campus police too. Involving law enforcement for nonviolent incidents in dorms is an extraordinary escalation in a situation that could much more easily be mediated in a non-threatening manner by RA staff.

I also believe there is a legal problem with your Office of Residential Life’s current marijuana directive which, because UConn receives federal funding, aligns with the U.S. Department of Justice’s protocol rather than the state of Connecticut’s. The policy puts the university in a situation in which it has to request a local police force to enter the campus to enforce a federal law that directly contradicts the state law that the local police department is supposed to enforce. Marijuana possession (up to a half ounce) was decriminalized in Connecticut through Senate Bill 1014 of the 2011 Session Year which reduced the legal penalty to a $150 fine; on the other hand, the U.S. Justice Department treats marijuana possession the same as that of other controlled substances like cocaine or heroin. Anyone convicted of the federal crime is eligible for imprisonment and must serve at least 85% of their sentence. Because of your office’s

protocol, unlike anywhere else in the state, UConn police will respond to reports of anyone suspected of marijuana possession on campus. However, UConn-UCPD marijuana incidents aren’t going to be prosecuted by the feds, so guilty UConn students only face the state’s misdemeanor fines as legal consequences. So, thanks to your office’s marijuana procedure, UCPD finds itself stuck between an obscure obligation to the Justice Department and the realities of operating as a local police department in a decriminalized state. So what is its obligation? Chief Hans D. Rhynhart defines the mission of his department as follows: “The women and men at the Division of Public Safety are charged with ensuring the safety of our community and we take our responsibility seriously.” As I found examining my first objection, raiding dorms does not contribute to ensuring the safety of our community. However, your Office of Residential Affairs seems more concerned with the legal prerogatives of the DOJ than local objectives or statutes, so what is UCPD’s obligation according to your federal government overlords? In 2005, George Coppolo wrote during his time as Chief Attorney for the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research:

Connecticut law authorizes state and local police to arrest people for violations of federal criminal law. But, whether they can legally make an arrest for a specific federal crime depends on whether federal law explicitly or implicitly allows them to make an arrest for that crime. (Coppolo).

Thompson Reuters’s FindLaw describes the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which seems to answer the question of whether Congress is currently directing local or state police to enforce the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal laws regarding marijuana possession:

There is currently a ceasefire in the federal war on medical and even recreational marijuana as long as individuals adhere to state law and don’t engage in interstate commerce. Since 2014, Congress has approved a budget amendment known as the Rohrabacher-Farr or CJS amendment that prohibits the Department of Justice to use funds to prevent states from implementing… marijuana laws. (FindLaw).

If the UConn Police Department is committed to our community’s safety, and the U.S. Congress is directing local and state police officers to adhere to Connecticut’s state policy of decriminalization, then UCPD has no reason to go along with your Office of Residential Life’s directives that contradict the department’s state and federal guidelines. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has ruled that state officers are not required to enforce federal laws, such as those that would direct UConn police officers to pursue potential misdemeanor marijuana possession suspects:

[T]he Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the State’s officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.

Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, 935 (1997)

If your Office of Residential Life is truly restrained by federal marijuana guidelines, then under Printz v. United States and the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, all investigations into residents suspected of marijuana possession should really be conducted through federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigations. These agencies would obviously decline to direct resources toward making inquiries into college students committing minor misdemeanors; however, this strategy would actually be a win for both students, who wouldn’t have to fear for their lives, and the university, which would appear to be in compliance with the DOJ. Or, if that tactic feels too suspect, then UConn should itself adhere to Printz v. United States and Rohrabacher-Farr and stop subjecting law enforcement to minor misdemeanor marijuana possession cases altogether.

My final contention concerns the notion that there is no other way for your Office of Residential Life to approach this issue; that every college’s student housing organization immediately relinquishes authority over marijuana incidents to police officers. As I mentioned at the beginning, I just transferred to UConn this semester. I employed my best friend Roland, a senior resident assistant at my old school, the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, to send me his official RA directives for dealing with cases of suspected marijuana use or possession in his building. The CCS 2018-2019 RA Manual advises:

If you believe there is a use of drugs going on (you smell it coming from the room), please investigate. While you may investigate for evidence, we do not want you actually handling the substance. Make sure you are looking for more information and you always have another person with you. If you see any drugs or paraphernalia, please contact your DS/SS/DOS (Direct Supervisor/Secondary Supervisor/Dean of Students). Stay in the room and gather as much information as possible until your DS/SS/DOS arrive. (College for Creative Studies).

Michigan, like Connecticut, is a state that has legalized medical and decriminalized recreational use of marijuana. As a former student who left halfway through the program, I have no shortage of grievances with the school; but compared to ours, CCS’s marijuana protocol for resident assistants demonstrates a fundamentally safer and more rational approach to managing potential minor substance incidents in campus housing. On this, my fifth day here at UConn, I’m asking you, the Office of Residential Life, to consider adopting a similar strategy as my first proposal to better my new community.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Aaron Johnson

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