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Lauren Hall and others speak at a panel about medical marijuana, race and the criminal justice system at the Creative Labs, located in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Emily Eaglin Filmmaker.

Advocating for medical marijuana in Baltimore (and at UMBC)

Medical marijuana has been a hot-button issue in the United States for decades, particularly since it was first legalized in California in 1996 (California Legislative Information). Since then, 28 other states have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana, including Maryland. But there is still controversy surrounding medical cannabis — a controversy that is evident right here at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, particularly for UMBC graduate school student and medical marijuana user Lauren Hall. 

Hall, who is pursuing her teaching certificate and her master’s in arts in teaching, was diagnosed with depression as a teenager; she began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist and was prescribed a cocktail of medications. Though they were effective, they came with severe long-term physical effects that Hall was not fond of, so she decided to pursue other treatments.

The alternative medication that Hall eventually decided to try was medical marijuana. Specifically, Hall uses the indica strain, which has what Hall calls a “body high” that helps her to relax and calm down. Unlike pharmaceutical antidepressants, Hall does not need to use marijuana on a consistent, regular basis — she simply smokes whenever she feels she needs to. Hall affirms that this has greatly helped to improve her mental health and that she now only has to take one additional antidepressant. However, this fix did not come easily: in order to use medical marijuana, Hall had to undergo an approximately three-week process filled with doctor’s appointments, applications, paperwork and other hoops to jump through.

The process began with Hall meeting with a doctor who is certified to allow people to obtain medical marijuana. She had to bring her existing prescriptions for her antidepressants to prove her diagnosis and then was required to fill out an application with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, or MMCC. In fact, the Commission initially sent her application back because the picture she submitted was not as clear as they required, but she re-submitted her form and received approval. Next, she returned to her doctor to pick up papers that legalized her to go to dispensaries to obtain and legally possess marijuana. Since then, she has been using medical marijuana for about a year.

This process was entirely worth it for Hall, who states, “I’m just doing really well on medical marijuana,” and that it has had a profoundly positive effect on her health. However, she does attribute its success partially to her therapist; she explains that, like any medication prescribed for mental health reasons, it is best to couple the medication with talk therapy. Additionally, her therapist is very supportive of her and her usage of medical marijuana.

Unfortunately, this support is not universal; Hall frequently encounters people who do not understand the benefits of medical marijuana or believe negative stereotypes about medical marijuana users. In fact, she has yet to find a psychiatrist that approves of or understands why she uses marijuana to treat her depression, rather than pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, she has found that the stigma against medical marijuana remains prominent and that people tend to perceive medical marijuana users as slackers or lazy potheads.

But Hall does not at all fit those stereotypes: “I’m a single mom of two kids, I graduated with honors, I work for the university … I’m making it work,” she says.

The obstacles faced by Hall and other medical marijuana users extend beyond facing other people’s preconceived notions. For example, there is one very important place that Hall cannot smoke or even possess any cannabis: right here at UMBC. 

Despite the fact that medical marijuana is legal in Maryland, UMBC is a federally-funded school, and under the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989, every school that wishes to receive federal funding must take a strict stance against illegal drugs — which cannabis still is, according to federal law. Therefore, the “possession, use or distribution of prescribed medical marijuana in university housing, on university property and at UMBC-sponsored off-campus events violates Rule 4 of the UMBC Code of Student Conduct and violates drug and alcohol-free workplace policies,” according to the official UMBC Student Conduct and Community Standards.

Hall considers this law “outdated and unacceptable.” Though she understands the necessity of receiving funding, she calls on the university to re-evaluate its stance on medical marijuana, saying that “sticking to a policy from the War on Drugs era and not considering new scientific research is ignorant.”  

Hall is certainly correct in saying that this law is outdated: the specific amendment that forces the university to take such a strong stance on drugs was passed in 1989, seven years before medical marijuana was first legalized by any state in the U.S. Regardless, the law prohibits Hall from being able to possess medical marijuana when she is on campus. Since Hall does not and never has lived on campus, this is not a major problem for her specifically. But any residential student who needs medical marijuana would be in a very difficult position.

According to Deputy Police Chief Major Bruce Perry, UMBC campus police occasionally search the Park Road smoke shelter for weed, but have only discovered marijuana once; more frequently, they get called to residence halls to investigate when the strong odor of marijuana is reported. This, Perry says, occurs approximately once every two or three weeks. If the student agrees to let them search their room, they will; if they find marijuana (which happens about 25 percent of the time), the student will be written up and will await a sanction. According to Dr. Jeff Cullen, Director of Student Conduct and Community Services, the typical punishment for a student caught smoking or in possession of marijuana would be “12 months of [d]isciplinary [p]robation, a status called ‘housing termination held in abeyance,’ a drug assessment and a reflection paper.”

As of now, UMBC police have never found anyone in possession of marijuana that was being used for medicinal purposes. But even if a student was caught with medical marijuana, they would likely be subject to the same school policies and punishments that a student who was illegally using the drug would be. Cullen does say that sanctions given to students are awarded with consideration to “mitigating or exacerbating factors,” but it is unlikely that medical marijuana usage would be applicable under those terms, because if UMBC were suspected of having a “permissive” attitude towards an illegal controlled substance, they would be at risk for losing federal funding. 

It is for reasons like these that so many groups advocate for the full legalization of marijuana. “There are still people in jail cells right now for marijuana possession,” says Hall, noting that those people are disproportionately people of color. In fact, Hall feels that the movement for legalization has become “very whitewashed,” noting that “throughout history, marijuana users and sellers were predominantly people of color, and that is where a lot of this stigma is coming from: a deliberate and systematic attempt to suppress those people through criminalization of marijuana.”

Hall spoke about this issue recently in a Creative Labs informational panel about race, marijuana and the criminal justice system. This panel is one of many local events that aim to educate the public about medical marijuana, because, as Hall has found, “there are a lot of misconceptions … people aren’t very informed” about medical cannabis, which she feels can add to the negative stigma surrounding it. For this reason, many dispensaries (such as local dispensaries PureLife Wellness and Trilogy Wellness) hold informational sessions and classes to help people gain an understanding of medical marijuana; additionally, there are resources such as “Maryjane of Maryland” that seek to inform patients about medical marijuana. 

Hall herself even advocates for acceptance of medical marijuana users; though she confessed that she was initially hesitant to speak so openly about her usage of medical marijuana, she knew that coming forward was a necessary step in helping people to understand medical marijuana. Above all, Hall states, “I really want it to be de-stigmatized … I believe in people coming forward and saying ‘Hey, I’m a functional person and I’m highly intelligent and I use marijuana on a regular basis and I’m being a successful person in society.’”