Medical marijuana legalized in Pennsylvania


Medical marijuana is legal in Pennsylvania after Gov. Tom Wolf signed a medicinal use bill Sunday.

Wolf signed the bill after a majority vote in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed the piece of legislation. The state is the 24th in the country to vote in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.

In terms of Lehigh’s student population, which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, the Spring 2015 National College Health Assessment concluded 15.8 percent of Lehigh students used marijuana 30 days prior to taking the assessment. The National College Health Assessment is a nationally recognized spring research survey that assesses a range of different health issues among college students.

A sample of randomly selected undergraduate and graduate students at Lehigh has been participating in the survey since Spring 2013. Lehigh’s surveys and data collection page reports only about 21 percent of the chosen sample actually takes the assessment. Peter Costa, the director of the Office of Health Advancement and Prevention Strategies, said 16.9 percent of all students nationally reported using marijuana 30 days prior to taking the Spring 2015 assessment.

Thomas Novak, the associate director of Lehigh’s Health and Wellness Center, said individuals who suffer from about a dozen and a half chronic and often debilitating conditions may qualify for medical marijuana in Pennsylvania. He said medical marijuana is intended for those who live with certain chronic conditions that impair their quality of life and daily function.

Novak said patients with chronic conditions who qualify for medical marijuana will already be under the care of a specialist, and the specialist would provide them with the prescription. He said the health center does not anticipate needing to prescribe medical marijuana.

“Patients with these chronic, ongoing conditions are often unable to fully execute an extremely demanding academic curriculum,” Novak said. “We would expect the need for our university students to be rare.”

Christopher Mulvihill, the assistant dean of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Expectations, said it is too soon to know if the new law will impact Lehigh’s campus. He added that it was unclear whether any Lehigh students would be using medical marijuana.

“As always, Lehigh will develop policies that protect the health and safety of students while complying with federal, state and local laws,” Mulvihill said.

He said while the use of medical marijuana may now be legal in Pennsylvania, the recreational use of the drug is still not permitted. He also said Lehigh’s code of conduct prohibits the illegal or unauthorized use, possession and distribution of drugs, which include but are not limited to marijuana.

Lori Friedman, the director of Lehigh’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, said schools that receive federal financial assistance, such as Lehigh, must comply with the Federal Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act. This act requires these policies that prohibit marijuana use, possession and distribution on campus.

Costa said marijuana can be addictive and to stop using it can cause withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, sleeplessness and anxiety. The drug can cause heightened imagination, relaxation and enhanced sensory perception as well as memory loss, impaired judgment and reduced coordination, among other side effects.

He added that the effects on the body include, but are not limited to sedation, bloodshot eyes, coughing from lung irritation and increased appetite. Smoking marijuana increases the risk of asthma and certain kinds of cancers. Additionally, the effects of mixing marijuana with alcohol are unpredictable and could cause vomiting, panic or paranoia, among other reactions. 

Novak said short-term effects occur in most users, but long-term effects are dependent on user frequency and individual factors that are difficult to predict.

Mulvihill said if a student is cited for possession of an illegal drug such as marijuana, the student will follow the criminal court’s process for the citation and go through the university conduct process as outlined in the code of conduct. He said the violation can result in probation, counseling, parental notification or some kind of educational or restorative sanction.

Mulvihill said 48 students were found responsible for drug-related charges during the 2014-15 school year, 98 percent of which were related to marijuana.


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