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Marijuana policy in schools is a balancing act, Tampa-area district officials say

State and federal laws conflict on the issue.
A medical marijuana plant is shown at the Northwest Patient Resource Center medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle.
Published Oct. 4

Florida school superintendents got a blunt reminder Thursday that many of them are long overdue in creating a medical marijuana usage policy, required in state law more than two years ago.

“Although the area of law is relatively new, ample time has passed for districts to adopt compliant access policies,” K-12 chancellor Jacob Oliva wrote in his Oct. 3 memo.

He gave those without policies until Dec. 1 to submit a draft, and until Dec. 31 to file an adopted rule with the Department of Education. Otherwise, he warned, the department might invoke penalties as allowed in statute.

The message came shortly after a Tampa television station reported that a majority of school districts in the region had yet to adopt marijuana policies.

The issue had not gone unnoticed in board rooms, though. Several school boards had discussed the state law in recent months, and done nothing because of concerns that enacting the state requirement could run afoul of federal laws that still view marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning its possession or distribution is illegal in schools and otherwise.

Violations could place school districts at risk of losing their federal funds, such as Title I grants that support the education needs of low-income students, the Neola group that advises several school districts told boards. Neola refused to write any policy recommendations for its clients because of such concerns.

Pasco County School Board members returned to the question during a September meeting where they were discussing a variety of policy revisions.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong noted that the lack of policy might become a disadvantage to the district, because it might seem to leave the door open to a variety of actions that are not controlled.

“At what point do we need to have a policy before someone is going to force us to do it?” Armstrong wondered.

Board attorney Dennis Alfonso responded that the district had a strong procedure in place, allowing parents access to their children to administer medical marijuana while not requiring district employees to store or otherwise interact with the medicine.

“The policy we have now is to follow the controlling federal law,” Alfonso told the Pasco board, adding that the student code of conduct “does not contemplate a lawful use of marijuana” in school.

He later explained that the Pasco procedure aims to thread the needle of meeting the state mandate without violating the federal prohibitions. That way, the district can protect its employees from prosecution and also guard against losing its federal money, which runs into the millions of dollars.

It’s very similar, Alfonso said, to the Hernando County school district’s adopted policy. The Tampa television station identified Hernando as the only district in its region to have a policy.

Hernando’s rule also closely reflects the one used in Broward County schools, which the Department of Education used as an example for other districts to follow.

Alfonso, who also represents the Hernando board, said perhaps the only difference between Pasco’s procedure and Hernando’s policy is the level at which the activity has been adopted. The state law requires the approval of “a policy and a procedure,” not one or the other.

He said he would review whether additional action is needed, and expected that other school district lawyers would be looking at the same questions.

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