On a recent Thursday, a small group of Northern Illinois University students took their seats at an open forum to discuss recreational cannabis. It will be legal in Illinois soon.
Administrators wanted to make one thing clear: marijuana will still be banned on NIU’s campus.
That’s mostly because of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act.
“In order to receive federal funding -- you know how some people get those wonderful loans from the federal government for school -- in order for NIU to accept those, NIU has to agree that the use of cannabis on campus will be prohibited,” said Jeanne Meyer, the director of student conduct at NIU.
The federal government has issued fines to institutions that have neglected the act.
Rockford University is private, but it still has to adhere to federal law.
“It won’t look radically different for us as a private university,” said Randy Worden, the vice president for student life at RVU.
“You have kind of competing interests; the federal government is very concerned that your schools are a drug-free environment, yet the states are allowing people to recreate with drugs that the federal government doesn't allow,” said Worden.
Both schools are turning their attention away from prevention and toward education. That’s teaching students where cannabis is allowed, along with how to be as safe as possible if you choose to use it.
You can’t have it on university property, including if your car is parked on campus.
Meyer says you should also be aware of what’s called “constructive possession.”
She says that means, “If you have a pile of weed sitting in your residence hall room and you obviously see it and it's close to you, you might be found responsible.”
Meanwhile, at Rockford University, Randy Worden says enforcement will focus on usage.
“I don’t think any longer we’ll be confiscating marijuana we come across because it’s no longer an illegal substance,” he said. “We’re just saying you can’t use it on our campus, and that’s just a distinction students are going to have to get used to.”
And if you get caught on school property, Meyer at NIU says the penalties are the same even if you’re of legal age.
“You could face a fine, you could be ordered to do a substance use program so that you understand the impact,” she said. “It's very similar to how we treat underage drinking and also smoking.”
From a law enforcement perspective, Jason John says there’s a large range of penalties. He’s the deputy chief of police operations for the NIU Police.
Violations may look different for non-NIU students, also known as “non-affiliates” caught with cannabis.
“We're probably going to be referring to student conduct for non-affiliates. I mean, we do have city ordinances, the DeKalb city has their certain ordinances that they have...that we will probably issue to non-affiliates,” said John. “With the decriminalization in Illinois, what that means for us is that our priorities are going to kind of shift in regards to public safety, education, and more traffic safety.”
Michael Zajac is the associate dean of students in the Division of Student Affairs at NIU. He agrees the university mostly wants to focus on education.
“We're not going to say, you know, you can't do this, you can't do that, it's bad,” said Zajac. “It's like, we just want to provide this health initiative.”
He says the university is doing that through a communication plan. They updated their website to outline drug-related policies and provide an interactive map of where you can have cannabis. Their plan also includes wellness events like the student forum.
Andrea Drott works in Recreation and Wellness. She says it’s all about safety.
“If somebody's getting stoned and not going to class that's a bigger concern to me than if they're smoking and still succeeding academically, and their health is still okay,” said Drott.
At Rockford University, administrators say they’ve seen an increase in marijuana use for the past several years. They’re not certain how legalization will impact that trend.
That’s why leaders say they would rather get the message out before the law takes effect.